Even when Olympic dreams go sideways, ‘Sleigh Queen’ Simidele Adeagbo’s crown stays intact

Sarah Michels


Simidele Adeagbo should be in Beijing right now. Instead, she’s watching the Winter Olympics on her couch as the first one out. 

University of Kentucky alumna Adeagbo needed to place 20th to secure her spot as a two-time Olympian representing Nigeria. After the complex Olympic qualification process, she ended up 21st in the monobob world rankings. 

The narrow disappointment is a taste of déjà vu for Adeagbo. Before qualifying and competing in the 2018 Sochi Olympics in skeleton, Adeagbo barely missed qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the triple jump, the event in which she competed while a member of the UK track and field team.

A decade later, Adeagbo became Nigeria’s first Winter Olympian, as well as the first African and Black woman to compete in skeleton, a sliding sport in which athletes race down an icy track headfirst, laying on their stomachs, at upwards of 80 miles an hour. She decided to pursue the event 100 days before the Sochi Games after her tryout for the Nigerian women’s bobsled failed to land her a spot on the team. 

That’s not much time to go from a former triple jumper to an Olympian, but Adeagbo wasn’t fazed by the challenge.

This Olympic cycle, Adeagbo again decided to try something new. She chose the monobob, one of several events debuting this year. Monobob is essentially the solo version of bobsledding, and it’s exclusively open to women as part of the International Olympic Committee’s push for gender equity at the Games, which also includes extra qualifying spots for women in many events and the addition of new mixed events

During the 2021-22 regular season, Adeagbo competed in 10 races in the U.S. and Europe, placing in the top 10 seven times, competing twice in the top tier world cup circuit and winning her final race in Winterberg, Germany. The win in Winterberg crowned Adeagbo as the first African athlete to win an international bobsled race. Adeagbo improved with each successive race, but it wasn’t quite enough to make the team. 

In 2008, all Adeagbo could feel after the Trials was devastation and heartbreak. Now, she’s more mature, she said. 

“I am honoring a promise that I made to myself before I got on the plane to come back for those last three races in Europe,” Adeagbo said. “I said regardless of the outcome, I’m still going to choose to be proud and choose to celebrate anyways, and that is a promise that I am staying committed to even when it doesn’t feel easy to do.” 

Her absence from the Winter Olympics doesn’t make Adeagbo any less busy, though. Throughout the past weeks and months, she’s been accepting opportunities to share her perspective on several conversations surrounding this year’s Olympics, including the importance of representation.

Without Adeagbo, there are no African athletes represented in the sliding events — bobsled, skeleton and luge — and only five African nations represented at the Games, a drop from the record eight nations in 2018. Among the six African competitors, there is only one woman: Madagascar’s alpine skier, Mialitiana Clerc. Representing a continent of over a billion people is a lot of pressure to put on one woman’s shoulders, Adeagbo said. 

“I know that feeling whenever I am doing my sport,” she said. “I feel that I’m representing a whole continent because we just are so underrepresented. So everywhere that I go, I’m carrying the Nigerian flag proudly, but with that comes the weight of carrying the rest of the continent as well. 

As an African woman, Adeagbo is at the intersection of the conversations about gender equity and continental representation at the Olympics, particularly at the Winter Games. The purpose of the Olympics is clearly defined in the Olympic Charter, she said. According to rule 8, the Olympic symbol “represents the union of the five continents” – (North America and South America are combined into one continent, the Americas). 

But while diversity and inclusion of all countries is embraced and celebrated as part of the culture and policy of the Summer Olympics Games, that’s not necessarily the case for the Winter Games, which does not currently include continental quotas to ensure that every continent is represented in each event. 

“I can think back to different [Summer] Olympics I’ve watched, and you watch competitors who are very far away from leading the pack, but they’re still there,” Adeagbo said. “People really celebrate that and smile when they see those stories and know that that person, that athlete, is there representing the best of their country.” 

Adeagbo thinks the policy of the Winter Games should also reflect diversity and inclusion values and wants to use her voice to drive change through conversation and action through engagement of the necessary stakeholders. She said she’s not exactly sure what that looks like yet, but she plans to continue working in whatever ways she can to align the current state of play with the Olympic values. 

The fundamental principles of the Olympic charter also prohibit discrimination of any kind, including discrimination based on sex. However, Adeagbo said that women in the bobsled events still face challenges for Olympic representation their male counterparts do not. While there are 30 available spots for men between the two-person and four-person bobsledding events, there are only 20 spots for women in the traditional two-person bobsled and the monobob. 

“So I have to work twice as hard to qualify for the Olympic Games just because of my gender,” Adeagbo said. “We shouldn’t be in 2022, about to watch an Olympic Games in bobsled where 73% of the participants will be men. That is not even close to an even split. A fifth grader can pick up that math.”

Female representation is of utmost importance to Adeagbo; it’s so urgent that she is creating the Simi Sleighs Foundation to address it. The non-profit will be a place where female athletes can go for support, empowerment and the resources they need to reach their goals, inside and outside of elite athletics.

Representation and visibility at the Olympics are powerful and inspiring, but the Olympics only come once every four years, Adeagbo said. The importance of investing in athlete development in Africa and in other emerging countries where winter sports are not as common is just as crucial in the off years.

“I think what we need to look at is how we can sustain and support athletes for the long term,” she said. “There’s no good if you just have one Olympics, and then you never see that athlete again.”

Not everyone believes in Adeagbo’s mission or potential on the ice, but she prefers to ignore the naysayers. After four years in the sport, Adeagbo finally feels that she is not just a participant but a worthy competitor. She came to this realization not after competing at the 2018 Olympics, but after spending three weeks at the International Training Period in Beijing in October 2021, where she cultivated a sense of belonging through her interactions with her fellow competitors in the dining hall every day.

 While Adeagbo hasn’t confirmed her plans for the 2026 Milano Cortina Olympics in Italy, she feels fitter and more confident than ever after her most recent season. Just like this Winter Olympics, whether Adeagbo competes or not, she said she will continue to use her voice for change, her head held high, crown intact as “Africa’s original Sleigh Queen.”