Making dreams into realities
Now that the 2012 Summer Olympics have closed, the focus turns to the 2014 Winter Games – especially for Seun Adebiyi. The 29-year-old is training to compete in skeleton, a sport involving racing on a small sled down a frozen track, on behalf of his native country Nigeria. An impressive feat in its own right, Suen’s story includes a few hurdles that have altered his plans and given him additional goals.
Seun has had dreams of the Olympics since he was a child. As a part of the Nigerian Swim Team, he missed the 2004 Olympics by one-tenth of one second. A few years later, while a law student at Yale, Seun discovered the sport of skeleton and a new Olympic dream was born: to become Nigeria’s first competitor in the Winter Olympics. He started training for the 2010 Games.
In 2009, just after graduating from Yale Law School, Seun learned he had two rare and aggressive blood cancers: lymphoblastic lymphoma and stem cell leukemia. His doctors told him that he needed a stem cell transplant in order to survive, but unfortunately, a matching donor could not be found in the national registry. The most viable matches are generally found within a patient’s own ethnic group, so Seun’s Nigerian heritage and the shortage of African American’s in the national registry combined to work against him.
Putting his skeleton training on hold, Seun became an advocate for cancer patients of African descent, raising awareness of the need for more bone marrow donors. He worked with the South African registry to organize a donor drive in Nigeria. Shortly before he was to leave for Africa, Seun learned that a match for him using cord blood had been identified in the United States. Although Seun was no longer searching match, he put his own health at risk by proceeding with the trip in order to raise awareness and register potential donors for other patients in need.
Seun had to watch the 2010 Winter Olympics from his hospital bed, but the cord blood transplant was a success. His experience made him more determined to reach the 2014 Games and to take action to help other African and African American patients searching for bone marrow matches. He has organized the first Nigerian bone marrow registry (only the second registry in all of Africa) and he is working to establish a cord blood bank there as well. He also continues to race down a chute of ice at speeds around 80 mph as he pursues his Olympic skeleton dreams. As Seun put it, “I’ve already had cancer, what’s the worst that could happen?”
For more information about becoming a bone marrow donor, click here.
Learn more about Seun and his efforts:
- July 2012 interview on NPR – “Olympic Hopeful Works To Improve Bone Marrow Registries“
- May 2012 New York Times article – “Finding a Match, and a Mission: Helping Blacks Survive Cancer“
- November 2010 ESPN profile – “E:60 Skeleton Man” or watch it below.