Watching the London 2012 Paralympic Games in “awe”, the possibility of one day putting on the GB vest seemed more than a dream away for Great Britain Academy athlete Lanre Sowami, “I would have been thinking that’s impossible”.
Back then, Sowami had only just taken-up wheelchair basketball, but, as you fast forward through the eight years since, the 22-year-old’s story is one of pure determination, hard work and mental resilience.
Determination to succeed
Born in Nigeria, before moving to the UK a year later, Sowami was diagnosed with Burkitt’s Lymphoma, cancer in the lymphatic system, at age four. Receiving treatment whilst living at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London for the next few years of his life, Sowami had to learn how to walk and eat again.
“I don’t remember a lot about my time there, but I owe a huge amount to the amazing staff at the hospital, without them I wouldn’t be here now working towards my dream and for that I’m incredibly thankful,” Sowami says
Although Sowami recovered from cancer, he lost the use of both of his legs.
“I guess because I was still young it took me a while to fully understand what had happened. My parents said to tell my school friends that I was in a wheelchair because I had fallen down the stairs. It would have been hard to explain the exact reasons why I was in a wheelchair to my friends, especially when I didn’t fully understand it myself at the time.
“Even now it is sometimes difficult to fully understand what happened in my early years and, it wasn’t until I went to secondary school, and my Mum sat me down and explained it all, that I began to understand what had happened, and I hadn’t just fallen down the stairs.”
At school, Sowami was always interested in PE and sport, but “teachers found it hard to integrate me into lessons,” Sowami says. But Sowami was determined to get involved in sport and, with the support of the team’s coach, he began attending the school’s basketball team.
“I would stay behind after school and train with the school’s running basketball team, I would move up and down the court with them. One week, the team’s coach Mr Robinson asked me to be part of the squad for the team’s weekend games, I was super excited.
“At a young age, I never really saw myself as disabled so I just jumped at it without even thinking that I would be playing against people that weren’t in wheelchairs. It meant the world to me to be given the chance.
“I was part of the team and went to this tournament, it was difficult, I was running people’s toes over, I was playing point guard, so I soon realised it was difficult to keep up with people running up and down the floor. I told my occupational therapist about being part of the team and she then looked for a wheelchair basketball team for me.”
Love at first sight
Joining the Maidstone Rebels Wheelchair Basketball Club at age 13, Sowami admits seeing the sport for the first time was “love at first sight”.
“Even though it was just a training session, I was like ‘woah’, I was seeing people doing reverse lay-ups, shoot threes, axels getting broken, I was literally in awe of these guys.
“At that time, I couldn’t shoot properly, so I would just lob the ball from the back of my head to try and reach the basket, so to see what they were doing was remarkable to me, my mind was blown seeing what you can do with this.
“It was like love at first sight; I had fallen in love with the sport. I was infatuated by it all; so as soon as I returned home from training, I was online searching for how I get a chair for myself.”
A year after taking-up the sport, Sowami moved to the London Titans; where he began to compete in national competitions and would train at the same club as his wheelchair basketball role models.
“When I got the funding for my basketball chair, Ian Laker came to measure me up for my first chair and was asking where I was playing. I was from London and I used to frequently go back there to see family, so he said that if I ever wanted to train with them, I could attend their sessions.
“I went to some of their sessions and that’s when I saw the level of competition rise even more. As a club, they were going to Euro Cup competitions, they had a Premier Division team, they included Paralympians.
“One of the most surreal things was turning up to the training venue and Ade Adepitan being there to train because, before I started playing wheelchair basketball, I used to watch a TV show called Desperados and Ade was on that. So, it’s crazy that I’m now training and playing on the same team as him now.
“It was a totally different experience in London because that was when I first got exposed to the national junior competitions.”
As a junior, Sowami competed at the National Junior Championships, BWB’s Junior League and School Games, where he received the Spirit of the Games Award in 2016.
“Competing on the national stage as a junior was incredible. I didn’t want to go back to school or return to my ordinary week because looking forward to those junior competition weekends was for me like looking forward to Christmas. That was the highlight of my year and I guess that was the reason for a lot of us.
“You got to see your mates; you were competing at the highest level you possibly could for that age. Competing at those national competitions was like competing at a national Olympics, it was amazing.”
Study and sport balance
Throughout his junior career and even up until last year, when he graduated with an Accounting and Finance degree from the University of Brighton, Sowami has continued to balance his studies with his sport.
“I come from a Nigerian background so education is super important, it’s something you can’t compromise on. You realise you have to have a career or plan B because a lot of people put all their eggs in one basket and do really well, but others do the same and don’t reach the heights they were hoping for.
“So, education has always been extremely important to me and I wouldn’t change being a student-athlete for the world, yes it was challenging at times and intense, but I loved having that focus.”
Sowami was first invited to a GB training camp whilst playing for the Under-15s team at London Titans. Since then, Sowami has gone on to become part of the Paralympic Pathway; representing Great Britain at invitational tournaments in Japan, Dubai and Barcelona, as well as the 2018 U22 European Championships in Italy.
Even now, Sowami can’t believe how far he’s come in the sport.
“I remember watching the London 2012 Paralympics and seeing the likes of Terry Bywater and Abdi Jama and, because I had just started, I was overwhelmed just watching them, thinking this is insane. I was watching them in awe but almost like unattainable awe at that point.
“It’s mad thinking about that now because I’m not only in the same training venue as some of those players, but I have also had chance to speak to them as well. In 2012, I would have been thinking that’s impossible, but now it’s a reality and, hopefully, maybe I will make that Paralympic team one day.
“It’s really strange sitting here now talking about what I want to achieve because starting out I never thought I would have been sat here now having achieved what I have. I just love being involved in the sport, I have so much fun doing it, and the people involved and the people you meet are just incredible.
“In a game you’re on court playing for 40 minutes, so the main thing for me is the people; it’s the people you meet, the relationships you form and the things you learn to make you a better player.”
Whether it’s working on his fundamentals or his wider knowledge of the game, Sowami is always striving to improve and be the best player he can be.
“Everyone in wheelchair basketball, not just the sport but also the community, is wanting to learn, improve and have fun, and that’s an environment I love being in.
“When you’re on the court for those 40 minutes, everything that’s going on in your life, anything that’s troubling you, it just takes a back seat and you’re focused on being the best player you can be on court and doing your best to help your teammates. I haven’t got that feeling from anything else.”
Inspired by the quote “Vision without execution is Hallucination”, “I just want to be the best player I can be and to keep on improving as much as I can.”