Dennis Ogbe grips the discus in his right hand. He swings his arm and twists at the waist as far to the right as he can. With one move he snaps back, letting the saucer fly. Upper-body strength is important for any discus thrower, but for Ogbe, a Paralympian, it’s everything.
At age three, Ogbe contracted malaria, and while receiving treatment at a clinic near his home in rural Nigeria, he became infected with the poliovirus. Paralyzed from the waist down, he was sent home in the arms of his mother.
He credits his physical rehabilitation to a harsh form of therapy – the taunts of the other children in his village. After taking his crutches away, kids would dare him to take several steps forward before they would allow Ogbe to join in a game of soccer with them. Eventually, his right leg became stronger and he could walk without a wheelchair or crutches, but his left leg remained paralyzed.
Ogbe, now a U.S. citizen, has made a name for himself in the international Paralympic community and holds the American records for discus and shot put. While competing, he earned a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky. Today he serves as an advocate for polio eradication and as an ambassador for the United Nations Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign to promote childhood immunizations. He spoke at Rotary’s World Polio Day: Making History event on 24 October in Chicago, which is where we caught up with him.
“Whatever I do in this life, I hope and pray that it is going to inspire people,” he says. “I hope it challenges them: ‘If Dennis can do it, I can do it.’”
THE ROTARIAN: What challenges did you face growing up with polio?
OGBE: In Nigeria, people with disabilities are often cast away or encouraged to be beggars. Polio was evident everywhere, at the bus stops and on the streets. But my father wanted me to have a better life. He told me that he would not see one of his children on the streets, left to beg. He realized that an education would be my saving grace. Most people don’t think of school. In Nigeria, it’s often survival of the fittest. My father believed that in any disability, there’s always an ability. And he gave me the opportunity to figure out what mine was.
TR: What was it that drew you to athletics?
OGBE: When I was in school, I had to push myself to play sports. I tried tennis, high-jump, and basketball, but I walked with a big limp, making it difficult. At the time, the only sports available for people with disabilities were shot put, javelin, power-lifting, and track. I couldn’t participate in track because I couldn’t afford a better wheelchair. So I found heavy spare rods at auto shops and began to practice throwing.
Eventually I began competing. I ended up throwing for Nigeria at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia. There I met an assistant track and field coach for the USA. He must have seen something in me, because I was offered a partial sports scholarship to Bellarmine University, where I competed against able-bodied athletes.
When I wasn’t studying or training, I was working five jobs to pay tuition. If I look at my life without sports, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The competitiveness in sports was the push I needed from the very beginning when I contracted polio. It gave me a goal to work toward. It was the mentality of “I can do more” that brought me to where I am today.
TR: How does this competitive mentality help you in your work fighting polio?
OGBE: My father always told me that it’s not how one starts that matters, it’s how one finishes. The end is still a hundred miles away, but I know one thing: When I am crossing that finish line, I want to be holding hands with the people who have helped me in my life. There have been many people who have gone out of their way to help me get to where I am today, and I owe it to them to finish strong. That’s how I feel about polio. It’s been a long fight, but we have many friends. I know if we continue to give it our best shot, we will finish this race on top.
Adapted from a story in the April 2014 issue of The Rotarian.
For Paralympian Dennis Ogbe, upper-body strength means everything after losing use of his left leg because of Polio