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Feb6ThuMaureen Ajoku's faith is as sharp as her bobsled's blades. February 6, 2014 by Jayne Thurber-Smith
Bobsledding has been described as being thrown off a mountain in a garbage can. By the end of her first full year of bobsledding, Maureen Ajoku had crashed three times. How did she get back on, even after one wipeout at 129 kilometres an hour?
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“It's not hard at all,” she smiles. “The first time it was scary to crash, but the next run was 10 minutes later and I just said, 'Let's go again!' I was told from the beginning that crashing is a part of the sport. I think to myself: This is what I have to go through, so let's do this.”
As brakeman, her job is to help push the sled down the track, hop on after the pilot, then at the bottom use all her strength to pull the brakes as hard as she can.
“Every trip down is really scary, because you never know what you're going to get,” Maureen says. “You can hit a curve on one run down, and you can have a spill. You just have to stay calm and trust in your pilot that you're going to get down safely.”
Through the Best and the Worst
Six years ago, Maureen almost crashed emotionally. Three weeks before her high-school commencement in San Jose, California, her father died suddenly of kidney failure. Then, within months of attending University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), she lost her mother to ovarian cancer.
Rather than cave in to her circumstances, Maureen turned to a Bible passage that had resonated with her since she was little. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4 KJV).
“I became a Christian at a very early age and Mom had always taught me to have faith in God, through the best of times and worst of times,” Maureen says. “She taught me to believe God will see you through no matter what. When my parents died, I had to grow up really fast and see what was important. No matter how long you have, it's a short life. Any opportunity you get—take it. I started to dedicate my goals and my dreams to my parents, to live a life that would make them proud. That's what has kept me going.”
Maureen started her college career with a dedication to work harder and was a walk-on to the track team her first year of college.
“I came into college jumping only 16 feet 8 inches—not scholarship worthy,” she remembers. “But by my senior year, my long jump was 20 feet and I earned my scholarship. Until then, I had never thought of myself as a high-class athlete; I was just OK. That was my defining moment: I could be a really good athlete.”
Josh Priester, then UCSB's associate director for track and field, watched Maureen during workouts and saw that not only was she fast but she was strong and explosive, too, which is important for bobsledding. He had connections with the U.S. National Bobsled team and used them.
“When my coach first said I'd be a good bobsledder, I thought, What's a bobsled? I had never even seen snow fall!” the California girl remembers. “But when I realized it was an opportunity to be in the Olympics, I went for it.”
She attended qualifiers and then recruitment camp in July 2012. By August she was competing in Calgary. Within a year, Maureen was presented with the 2013 Women's Bobsled Athletes' Choice award by her fellow athletes in recognition of her hard work and dedication.
“That was such an honour, to know I made a positive impact on my team,” she says. “That's what I want—to be positive and inspire those around me.”
Besides being a team player, Maureen has hard-earned wisdom to share with aspiring athletes. She took time out of her Lake Placid training sessions this past summer to inspire some young people at the local youth centre. She never hesitates to share where her help comes from.
“At such a young age, kids don't know how life works and they need a role model, one who has been through a struggle,” she says. “I can share what God's gotten me through and tell them it's going to be OK. Faith is a part of who I am so I have no problem sharing that. My faith in God has helped me and I can't hide it away. I feel that's my purpose in life. With all I've been through, I still have so much joy! I want people to know even though life throws a lot of trials at them, they have the rest of their life to succeed.”
She has high hopes for success at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, this month. She knows her faith in her bobsled pilot and her heavenly pilot is well placed.
“I try to let go of all unknown outcomes,” Maureen asserts. “I trust in God's plan and that He will guide me through this journey.”
(Photos: Courtesy of U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation)