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Funmi Oduwaiye: The basketball star finding new direction in Paralympic shot put and discus

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She hadn’t stepped foot inside a throwing circle since school sports days. But now Funmi Oduwaiye is preparing to compete at the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games, just two years after taking up the sport.

When a routine operation went wrong, shattering her dreams of becoming a pro basketball player, she admits she fell apart. But after being inspired by one of the most legendary figures in Welsh para sport, the 21-year-old has found new direction in shot put and discus.

She played lots of sports as a child

After trying out a huge number of sports as a child - figure skating, tennis, swimming, rugby, football and netball, Funmi finally stepped onto the basketball court:

“I had an inkling all along that I’d love basketball and I think that’s why I left it to last! I wanted to be sure that it was the sport for me. My Dad and my eldest brother both played but it was Mum that encouraged me to try anything and everything.”

She was 11 when she joined Cardiff Met Archers - a club just five minutes around the corner from her house:

“The atmosphere was so welcoming, I loved it there.”

Playing for fun, Funmi realised from the age of about 14 years old that basketball was something she could pursue professionally:

“After school, I’d go straight to the arena. And I always made sure I worked hard in school because if I wanted a college scholarship in America, I’d need good grades. 

“Every summer, I’d train at the courts in Roath Park with anyone who’d turn up. I’d almost always play against men. At first, they’d underestimate me, but they soon realised I was stronger than I looked.”

American colleges come calling

The breakthrough though came in 2019 when Funmi was 16 and she represented Wales at the Under 18 European Championships in Moldova. She was recognised as one of the All-Star Five – in other words, the five best players of the entire tournament.

Teams in Italy and Serbia soon cottoned on to the emerging talent from Cardiff and were eager for her to sign with them. But Funmi’s dreams lay Stateside. She started contacting colleges in America and she soon discovered plenty of coaches keen to welcome her on a scholarship. 

Funmi Oduwaiye running with a basketball during a match
Funmi Oduwaiye catching a basketball

Things go wrong

But Funmi had a condition called knock knees which she needed to fix in order to progress.

So, six months after starring in Moldova, she was booked in for a routine operation to straighten her legs. But during surgery, her artery was damaged and what was meant to be a maximum one-night hospital stay turned into a month-long ordeal:

“It was the worst period of my life. Here I was, hoping to get my legs fixed and get back on court as quickly as possible. But I was now a child on an adult ward, in serious pain and on the highest medications. I couldn’t even speak. I underwent five surgeries within the next two weeks to try and fix the damage.”

Funmi had a further three surgeries over the next couple of years and was in and out of hospital almost every day with various appointments:

“I couldn’t feel or move my leg. But I still wanted to try and get back to playing basketball. I tried to finish A-levels that year but it was too difficult. I had alarms to remind me to take medication and a machine that drained fluid from my leg which beeped all the time. So, I decided to drop out and I started again the following September.”

Finding a way forward

Feeling lost and alone, Funmi says she owes almost everything to one man: Anthony Hughes MBE, Performance Manager of Disability Sport Wales.

Anthony – who sadly died in 2022 – has a legacy like no other. Most of Wales’ Paris Paralympic hopefuls have their own tales to tell of how Anthony has changed their lives. For Funmi, he gave her direction:

“I’d always been really lucky that I knew what I wanted to do. And suddenly, that future had completely crashed down around me. I fell apart and I didn’t know how to move on. But Anthony gave me the opportunity to find myself again.

“There are no words that can really do him justice. There’s no way, without him, that I’d be here, hoping to go to Paris, just a couple of years after taking up the sport. I owe almost everything to that man.”

In fact, it was Anthony who bought Funmi her first pair of throwing shoes and introduced her to her coach, Josh Clark.

Funmi is also a devout Christian and her faith has also helped her not to feel bitter or resentful:

“I’ve always tried to forgive and move on positively. And I’m so lucky that while one door has closed, an even bigger one has opened.”

And indeed it has. The Paris Paralympic Games now beckon after she finished in fourth place in F44 shot put and sixth in F44 discus at the 2023 World Para Athletics Championships in Paris. 

Funmi Oduwaiye throwing a discus

Helping others

But it is perhaps testament to her generous nature and upbeat attitude, that she now juggles training and competing alongside basketball coaching with Cardiff Archers.

Rather than swearing never to go on court again, she’s back where she first started week in, week out:

“I coach three days a week. At first, it was a way for me to stay involved in basketball but I just love being able to give kids the experiences that I had growing up. I like to make sure they have fun when they’re on court.

“I think it’s so important that we all do what we can to exercise and get our bodies as active as possible. But sport is also so important for building friendships, being sociable, communicating with others. And it’s so good for our mental health too.”

“Sport has changed my life. So, if I can help just even one child to discover the happiness it’s brought me, it’s all been worthwhile.”

Like Anthony Hughes before her, she is committed to throwing her support behind Wales’ future talents.

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