As Ibrahim “Dammie” Onafeko watched his vision deteriorate to the point of blindness, he was nearly alone.
He’d had six surgeries attempting to save his eyesight, which was being overtaken by cataracts. His mother had returned to Nigeria after a three-month visit.
“I didn’t have my mom with me, not my dad, not my brothers, not my sister, not my friends. I didn’t have school. My life in Nigeria, I had nothing,” Onafeko said. “I only had hope. I was depressed.
“In the middle of it, a voice asked me, ‘Dude, what has been keeping you back?’ I realized it’s not my vision, but my vision. I might have lost my vision, but I haven’t lost sight of my vision.”
This is how Onafeko, 32, ends up rowing on the Anacostia River on a recent Monday evening, a smile painted across his face as he repeatedly raps the chorus to Terror Squad’s “Lean Back.”
“Dammie, man, I don’t know how he can sing,” his coach, Jai Mitchell, said from the chase boat, shaking his head. “Maybe I need to work him harder.”
Even with the rough times, including the pain that comes from rowing more than 5,000 meters, Onafeko says being blind is no excuse. He uses it as his motivation to do better.
“Do something with what you have and what you can,” Onafeko said. “You gotta do something with what you can. You do not worry about what you can’t. Let what you can’t go. Life in itself is anything but fair. Enjoy life to the fullest. You’ve got to make the most of what it gives you. I think I’m doing the best I can in the moment.”
The spirit of a champion has run through Onafeko’s veins for most of his life.
“I grew up in an area back in Nigeria where everyone wants to claim a champion,” Onafeko said.
After he lost his vision, he was looking for a specialized sport to get involved with. With his strengths being height, speed, power and agility, he immediately thought to take up boxing. Instead, he found a different challenge.
Before Onafeko started rowing, he worked out with other visually impaired people at the now-closed YMCA on Rhode Island Avenue. Onafeko said one of the volunteers there knew one of the former coaches at Capital Rowing, Karen Eakes. That volunteer introduced them, saying that Onafeko was a “perfect fit” for their adaptive rowing program.
On the first Saturday of July 2014, Onafeko spoke with Eakes on the phone and told her he’d come out to the boathouse that next Monday. And ever since, he’s had a ripple effect across the sport.
Rowing is one of the most demanding athletic endeavors, Mitchell says, as it takes endurance, strength, power, balance and strong senses. Four of Onafeko’s senses are well above average; they compensate for his blindness.
Dan Longo, another rower in the Capital Adaptive Rowing Program, has rowed with Onafeko four times since they both started two years ago.
“He’s strong,” Longo said. “We just have to stay in sync. He has long arms, long legs.”
Onafeko stands 6 feet 5, and his coaches say he has the perfect build for rowing.
Despite participating in the sport for the same amount of time, Longo said Onafeko generally rows with more experienced competitors.
“Dammie’s more of a natural,” Longo said. “He came out of nowhere on the circuit.”
Within Onafeko’s first six months rowing, he won a gold medal at his first competition at the Bayada Regatta. He’s currently first in the world on the Concept 2 ergometer, or rowing machine, for his category.
There are several classifications of adaptive rowing, which incorporate those with physical or intellectual disabilities or visual impairment. Onafeko competes in the men’s legs-trunk-arms, visually impaired category.
Onafeko was invited to a legs-trunk-arms development camp in Boston in late May. The camp was put on by USRowing, the governing body for rowing in the United States, and the United States Association of Blind Athletes. Because of support on his GoFundMe page, he was able to attend.
Onafeko is a rising junior at Howard University, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in audio production. He has a summer internship as the assistant production manager at WHBC 96.3 FM, the student-run radio station at Howard.
“I’m looking forward for greater things to happen,” Onafeko said. “My ambition is to be a radio personality and at the same time audio production personnel. I’m working all of that out. Rowing is just part of the life. You can’t not stand on your two feet and not want to make contributions to the world. Blindness is just an opportunity for me to do more than I could have ever done with vision.”
One contribution Onafeko wants to make is to row in the Paralympics, which begin Sept. 7, for Nigeria. He’s currently trying to qualify, and he’s one of the world’s best in his category. But there’s a catch.
There is no Nigerian Paralympic rowing team.
And Onafeko needs two Nigerian women and one Nigerian man, all of whom are Paralympic rowers in his category, to row with him in order to qualify.
But Onafeko isn’t giving up hope. And neither are his coaches.
“The Olympics will mean a great deal to me,” Onafeko said. “The meaning of the Olympics to me is self-actualization, meaning you should not settle for less, but reach for more, until you accomplish the best that you could ever be in life. If I’m doing this and I’m climbing up the ladder, why not go to the top of the ladder, if that’s the next rung on the ladder to climb? Doing that will mean I have self-actualized myself in rowing.”