But there was a small problem: Nigeria had never even qualified a gymnast to the Olympics before.
In May, Eke made history when he became the first to do so — and this past weekend, he competed in his first Olympic Games.
Eke, 23, was raised in the US, but he’s been traveling to Nigeria every year since he was three to visit his father’s village. Inspired by the sense of community he felt during his visits, he knew he wanted to give back — the only question was how.
Like many kids, Eke grew up doing flips on the trampoline in his babysitter’s backyard, but he wouldn’t stop when trampoline time was over. He started doing backflips off his couch, landing on his head each time, until his mom decided to put him in a gymnastics class. Eke excelled and was eventually recruited to the University of Michigan, one of the top collegiate programs for men’s gymnastics.
When Eke arrived at Michigan, he told his head coach, Kurt Golder, that he wanted to compete in the Olympics. Since Eke has dual citizenship, Golder suggested that he represent Nigeria in what would become a historic moment for the country.
CNN caught up with Eke in May — just ahead of his successful qualifying meet at the African Championships — to learn more about his historic journey to the Tokyo Olympics.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CNN: Even though you grew up in Maryland, did you always identify as Nigerian?
Uche Eke: Personally, I always identified as a Nigerian. My dad always tells me: if someone says something good or how did you do this? How did you do that? He says, “because it’s African blood.” So, I’ve been saying that for a while, as a joke, of course, but seriously at the same time.
My name is Uche, and I will say that I didn’t like the name when I was growing up, because people would try to make fun of me and mispronounce it, and it was really getting on my nerves. But now people are getting used to the name Uche and they love it, and I love it too.
CNN: What would it take for Nigeria to be competitive in gymnastics at the Olympics?
UE: One thing I really love about Nigeria as a whole is that we’re strong and we have a heart, and we need to get things done. So, the only thing that I believe that’s stopping Nigeria from excelling in gymnastics is the equipment.
Athletics in Nigeria isn’t really taken that seriously, unless they’ve already made it. Then everyone wants to help out and be supportive. But in order to get to that level, you need equipment, you need support, you need funding in order to excel. Since I have a great place here [in Michigan] to train, I can take advantage of this and get rid of the grunt work for Nigeria … (and) put Nigeria on the map for gymnastics.
CNN: How supportive was your family when you started getting serious about gymnastics?
UE: Around high school, my dad was taking me to practice because he started to realize that I was getting really good at it. I had that conversation with him saying that this is my dream, I want to go to the Olympics doing everything I can, and at this point, I do care about school, but I care about gymnastics more. So, he said, all right, let’s use gymnastics to get you into the top and best university possible, and he said, “just pursue your degree and I’ll help out with gymnastics and help you follow your dreams as much as I can.”
CNN: Your first major international competition was at the 2019 African Games in Morocco. Tell us about that experience.
UE: When we got there, I knew what my goal was, which was to win a gold medal for Nigeria because it hasn’t been done before. And I went in there, treated it like a normal competition, try to avoid all pressures and just went out there and had fun. And I came out first place on pommel horse.
When I was on the ground right after I landed, I looked up at the score and I saw my name on top, and I was just so happy. Even those who weren’t there for Nigeria, the whole crowd was (excited), because that hasn’t been done before. I just felt all the excitement and love from everyone there.
CNN: What does it take to be a good gymnast?
UE: I believe that hard work beats out talent. Of course, if you’re talented, you have a huge advantage from the start, but it takes time and repetition. For example, throughout my childhood, I practiced from 4:30 PM to 9:00 PM every day. On the weekends, it would be from around 12:00 to 4:00. So, it’s all about time and repetition.
CNN: What would be your advice for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
UE: I would say find a gym, make do with what you have. Just keep working hard, keep believing. I’ve been through a lot of rough times here. Growing up, I’ve been hated on for doing gymnastics because it’s not a “Black sport,” but I don’t care. I want it. So, I’m going to get it and I have African blood and that’s what we do. If you really want something, just do it and just get it.
CNN’s Earl Nurse contributed to this story.