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‘This is all I’ve really wanted’: Maryland native Uche Eke will be first to represent Nigeria in Olympics in gymnastics

The oft-told story of Uche Devon Eke’s origin in gymnastics entails a friend daring the then-3-year-old Eke to attempt a backflip off a couch, Eke landing on his head not once, but twice, and Eke’s mother, Tara, quickly signing up her youngest son for gymnastics class.

Since then, Eke expanded his adventuresome ways to include dirt biking, skateboarding, snowboarding, wakeboarding and hill-bombing, which involves racing a scooter or bike down a slope as fast as possible. And skydiving is on his bucket list.

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“I have no fear,” Eke, 23, said. “I just like to keep doing scary stuff.”

That bravado has served Eke well. After a solid college career at the University of Michigan, the former resident of Brookeville in Montgomery County and graduate of Good Counsel High School in Olney will represent Nigeria in the West African nation’s debut in gymnastics at the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer.

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Eke, whose father, Daniel, is Nigerian, qualified for the Olympics after capturing the bronze medal in the all-around competition at the African Gymnastics Championships on May 27 in Cairo. The top two finishers from different countries earned berths in the Olympics, and because Egypt won gold and silver, only one of the automatic qualifiers went to the North Africa nation, and Eke secured the other.

“This is all I’ve really wanted in life,” he said. “It’s just crazy to turn that dream into a reality. I believed in myself, but this just proves that anything you can believe in, you can do.”

Kurt Golder, who recently completed his 25th season coaching the Wolverines, said Eke has worn his excitement on his sleeve.

“He texted me right away as soon as it was official, and maybe it’s just my imagination, but I could read the happiness in his text,” he said.

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Eke (whose full name is pronounced ooh-CHAY ECK-ay and means “God’s Will” in his father’s Igbo language) has maintained his connection to Nigeria. From 3 to 16 years old, Eke spent every Christmas and New Year’s Day in Nigeria with a large family that includes three uncles, one aunt and 10 cousins. Since he turned 17, he has added another return trip in May or June after school ended.

Uche Eke competes during University of Michigan men's gymnastics team's annual Maize and Blue Instrasquad meet at Cliff Keen Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Dec. 14, 2019.
Uche Eke competes during University of Michigan men's gymnastics team's annual Maize and Blue Instrasquad meet at Cliff Keen Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Dec. 14, 2019. (Eric Bronson/UM Photography, E. Bronson)

Eke knows enough of the Igbo language to understand it and can speak a little. He said he loves the music, food and work ethic, which he has adopted for gymnastics and schooling.

“Being Nigerian and knowing the work ethic out there, that’s why I like to work hard,” he said. “That same hustle and grind every day and desire to better yourself every day comes from my past experiences in Nigeria. I’ve seen the poorest of the poor, and I’ve seen people grateful for what they have, and that’s some stuff that I’ve taken for granted. So it makes me appreciate things more and work harder because I know that if they had the opportunity, they wouldn’t let it fly past without giving their all.

“I have the opportunity to get the best schooling and practice. So I might as well try hard every day.”

Golder said Eke popped onto his radar during the 2013-14 academic year when the latter sent the former videos of his performance in a competition, and Golder was impressed by Eke’s Kovács release skill, which involves creating enough momentum swinging around the high bar to release it, flip twice over the bar, and open the legs in time to grip the bar and continue the routine.

“He did it with a lot of amplitude,” Golder recalled. “So it showed me that he was dynamic and powerful. And also to do a release like that, he didn’t have a real high fear factor, and that’s really important in our sport, too.”

Since he was a child, Eke longed to perform on the Olympic stage. That objective got a boost in 2017 when he, his father and older brother Daniel Eke II discussed the possibility of competing under the Nigerian flag.

As difficult as finishing within the top four in the U.S. Olympic trials might have been, vying to represent Nigeria had its own obstacles, Daniel Eke II, 29, said.

“If anything, my brother felt more pressure because you have to get top two,” he said. “So it was tougher. And the guys in Africa are good, too. Don’t sleep on them.”

Uche Eke competes with the University of Michigan men's gymnastics team at the 50th Windy City Invitational on Jan. 18, 2020, in Chicago.
Uche Eke competes with the University of Michigan men's gymnastics team at the 50th Windy City Invitational on Jan. 18, 2020, in Chicago. (John Konstantaras/photo by John Konstantaras)

After successfully applying for dual citizenship and graduating from Michigan in May 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science engineering, Uche Eke competed for Nigeria at the 2019 African Games in August in Rabat, Morocco. He won a gold medal on the pommel horse and a bronze in the parallel bars. He then represented the nation at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships that October in Stuttgart, Germany.

Eke planned to use a final year of eligibility with the Wolverines to prepare for the 2020 African Gymnastics Championships, but the season and meet were canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, which also pushed back the Summer Olympics by a year.

“I remember my brother calling me and just crying, saying, ‘I worked so hard and for what? For this just to end like this?’” Daniel Eke II said. “And I was like, ‘Uche, no, stay focused. This is where it really matters. This is where you find out how bad you want it. You’ve got to find ways to train — whether that’s just you running or doing pushups or finding gyms that are open. This is where you really have to put in the work.’ And that’s exactly what he did. He just grinded all throughout 2020, and he had his shot this year, and it’s pretty surreal.”

Uche Eke called placing third at the African Gymnastics Championships and qualifying for the Olympics “absolutely amazing.”

“I didn’t cry or anything, but I just felt one of the biggest releases,” he said. “Even right now, I’m just like, ‘Wow, did I really do that?’ It’s crazy. … Words can’t even describe it.”

Daniel Eke II, who earned a bachelor’s in computer engineering from Connecticut and a master’s in computer science with a concentration in security from Boston University in 2020, said his father is just as enthusiastic about Uche’s achievement.

Michigan's Uche Eke competes during an NCAA gymnastics meet on Jan. 18, 2020 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)
Michigan's Uche Eke competes during an NCAA gymnastics meet on Jan. 18, 2020 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski) (Kamil Krzaczynski/AP)

“My dad strongly believed in us knowing our roots, knowing our culture, knowing where his side of the family came from,” said Eke, a product support engineer for Amazon Robotics. “Honestly, it gave us a strong sense of identity. So when my brother said he wanted to represent Nigeria, that made my dad happy. But when he actually made history and became the first Nigerian to make it to the Olympics in gymnastics, my dad is so proud.”

Uche Eke may not be considered a favorite among a group of contenders that includes Russia’s Nikita Nagornyy, the 2019 World All-Around champion; Russia’s Artur Dalaloyan, the 2018 World All-Around champion; and China’s Xiao Ruoteng, the 2017 World All-Around champion. But Golder is confident that Eke will not wilt under the bright lights.

“It’s an unknown,” he said. “He’ll be stepping onto that stage for the first time in his life, and you don’t know until you do it. But the bigger the competition, the better he’s been, and hopefully, he’ll have the best meet of his life during the Olympic Games.”

Daniel Eke II said his family is hoping to attend the Games in Tokyo in person. But if spectators are prohibited because of an alarming increase in the number of positive cases for COVID-19 in Japan, he said, they will be glued to their televisions.

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“He’s going to get 100% of our support,” he said. “It’s surreal that this is really happening. When he walks out holding the Nigerian flag, of course we’re going to be happy and shouting. I wish you [could meet] because she is very energetic. I can hear her screaming, ‘UCHE!’ because she used to scream that at all of his competitions. We’re excited, ecstatic.”

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TOKYO OLYMPICS

Friday-Aug. 8

Opening Ceremony: Friday, 7 a.m., NBC (Chs. 11, 4; re-broadcast at 7:30 p.m.)

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