Two young Nigerians, Elizabeth Ayanacho, a 21-year-old taekwondo star, and Iyeneobong Essien, a 13-year-old golf prodigy, were among 30 young female athletes featured in Assembly‘s (a Malala Fund digital publication for young women) 2020 Game Changers series.
Co-founded by Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, Assembly is a platform for girls and young women around the world to share their thoughts, challenges and accomplishments. These Game Changers include footballers, skateboarders, gamers, swimmers, runners, golfers, skiers, surfers, fencers, softball players and martial artists. Some have competed at the Olympics and Paralympics.
The 2020 Games Changers were selected from 24 countries. This year’s Game Changers are:
…challenging discrimination and lack of diversity in their sports. They’re changing perceptions of people with disabilities. They’re paving the way for other young women. And they’re speaking out to help every girl learn.
Each one is a testament to the incredible potential of girls and women when given the opportunity to learn and lead.
Elizabeth “Lizzy” Ayanacho
Ayanacho started competing in her first major taekwondo tournament in 2017 and has since won several tournaments. In 2020, the 21-year-old became the first Nigerian female taekwondo athlete to qualify for the Olympic Games in 16 years. “It was [a] great joy because we achieved one part of the plan that was conceived five years ago,” she says.
Her taekwondo lessons have helped her learn confidence off the mat. Ayanacho asks questions in class. She leads to in-class projects. “He’s really had a big impact on me,” says Ayanacho. “He [has] taught me how to stand out in the crowd. He has taught me how to approach [challenging] situations.”
There’s perhaps no more challenging circumstance than the COVID-19 crisis — and having to wait another year to compete in the Olympics. For Lizzy, it will be worth the wait. “It’s a great joy,” she says. “I get to be among one of the persons serving my country.”
For Essien, she picked up her first golf club when she was five years old. She’s described as Nigeria’s top junior golfer, with 17 medals and 11 international tournaments under her belt. Most recently, Essien took 10th place at the 2019 Nigeria Ladies Golf Open Championship, where she was the only teen player out of 177 golfers. While she works to bring home Nigeria’s first gold medal in golf at the upcoming 2022 Summer Youth Olympics, she’s also looking ahead to what she wants to study at university (artificial intelligence and robotics).
While Essien wishes more Nigerians girls were interested in golf, she knows the sport isn’t accessible to everyone. She says: “[Golf] is an expensive sport to start — you have to buy clubs, continually pay a coach to train you and go to tournaments. It is an elitist game.” Essien hopes the Nigerian government will put more effort into introducing the game to young girls and boys in the country and fund their training.
Essien wants to show other Nigerian girls that they can pursue any career they’re passionate about. “If [girls] see that what I’m doing is actually making me famous and I seem to enjoy it, they might like to find a profession that they will love to do in the future and also be noticed for their efforts,” she says.