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Versatile athlete shows artistic and leadership skills in return to Special Olympics

In early December of 1998, expectant mother Adewopo Tolulope Omowunmi became worried that something might be wrong with her pregnancy.

The Nigerian woman wasn’t due for weeks, but as the day wore on, her stomach pains intensified. She went to a hospital and discovered she was in labor. She prayed her premature infant would survive. Before long, the baby arrived — her second son, born healthy. God is marvelous, she thought happily, gazing at her tiny boy.

And suddenly, she had his name: Adewopo Marvellous Adedovin.

Now 18, Marvellous, as he is known, has lived up to his auspicious moniker. The teen, who lives in Lagos, won a silver medal in basketball in the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles and will compete in floor hockey in the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. Beyond his talents as an athlete, Adewopo is known as a natural leader, a gregarious joker with many friends and someone with a knack for technology.

When Adewopo was about 8, his mother recalls, he would pick up visitors’ cell phones and figure out how to play games on them. Recognizing the boy’s aptitude for technology, a friend of the family bought him a computer, which sparked his ambition of becoming an electrical engineer. He also loves art and often uses his computer to draw, his mother says.

The teen is among several dozen athletes Microsoft is featuring through a multiyear partnership with Special Olympics that aims to empower the organization’s games and athletes through technology. The initiative includes a campaign dubbed “We Are More,” which involves pairing Special Olympics athletes with people who share a passion with them outside of sports.

Adewopo collaborated with highly regarded Nigerian graffiti artist Osa Seven to create a large mural on a wall in Festac Town, a government planned housing district in the capital of Lagos. It was the first time Osa Seven had worked with a teenager to create a piece, and his first experience communicating with someone who is deaf. The pair sat together and sketched out the design on a Microsoft Surface Book, with Adewopo doing much of the drawing as Osa Seven guided him.

“He practically took over. I think he’s a natural,” Osa Seven says.

Osa Seven and Adewopo then spray-painted their creation on a large wall. A representation of Adewopo’s roots and love of hockey, the mural features an Africa-shaped bright yellow background, two clenched fists and a pair of hockey sticks, with both artists’ names and an inspirational message: “Together Everyone Achieves More.”

The teaching went both ways. Adewopo gave Osa Seven a hockey lesson, showing him how to stickhandle and pass. The artist admits he was hesitant about getting on the court.

“When he invited me to play with him, I was scared at first,” Osa Seven says. “But he knows what to tell you, how to handle the ball or how to dribble. It was awesome, learning from someone like Marvellous.”

Artist Osa Seven, left, and Marvellous Adewopo work on a sketch for the mural they created together
Artist Osa Seven, left, and Marvellous Adewopo work on a sketch for the mural they created together

Jared Blitz, the creative director at Los Angeles creative agency Advantage International, and director and filmmaker Chuck Anakwenze traveled to Nigeria to make a video about Adewopo and the collaboration with Osa Seven. They were apprehensive before arriving in Lagos, wondering how to handle any language or other communications barriers that might arise. They hired a sign language translator, showed up for the first day of filming at Adewopo’s hockey practice and hoped for the best.

It soon became clear that Adewopo was the team leader who the other players looked to for guidance. Watching him coach his teammates on stickhandling and drills, seeing the ease and confidence with which he communicated, Blitz and Anakwenze were awed.

“We didn’t even need the translator after day one because Marvellous was so good at communicating,” Blitz says. “Nothing was lost. Literally nothing. If we had to do another take, Marvellous would understand, and we’d do the same thing again.

“I’ve had few experiences working with an actor that were as seamless and easy as with Marvellous,” Blitz adds. “He picks things up immediately and his communication skills were awesome. It was a joy. I felt a bond with him that was incredible.”

Adewopo was diagnosed as deaf when he was a toddler and referred for speech and hearing therapy. The costs were out of reach for the family, but a colleague of his mother’s stepped in and helped them get financial assistance. Adewopo was enrolled at a boarding school that provides therapy for hearing-impaired children.

In primary school he met his best friend, a boy named Victor who had a disorder that severely limited the use of his hands. Adewopo developed his own form of physical therapy for his friend, gradually teaching him how to throw a ball and feed and bathe himself.

“Before, Victor cannot use his hands. His fingers were not moving,” Adewopo’s mother recalls. “Marvellous coached him. They would do exercises together. He can now move his fingers freely.”

The principal of Adewopo’s primary school appointed him class captain, and in his final year of secondary school he was chosen to be a school prefect — a position given to students who demonstrate leadership qualities and good behavior.

“He’s a leader of his peers,” Anakwenze says. “They all respect him.”

Adewopo became involved with Special Olympics when he was 12 and now commutes up to two hours each way to hockey practice in Lagos, taking buses that wind through the chaotic, sprawling streets of Africa’s largest city.

Marvellous Adewopo at floor hockey practice in Lagos, Nigeria
Marvellous Adewopo at floor hockey practice in Lagos, Nigeria

“That just shows his level of dedication, that he’s willing to do that,” Anakwenze says. “It’s pretty phenomenal.”

Adeola Oladugba, Marvellous’ coach and the sports director for Special Olympics Nigeria, met Marvellous when he went to his previous school and recruited him to compete. The teen likes to make people laugh with his comical imitations of others, Oladugba says, but he is also a committed athlete who is always on time for practices and motivates his teammates.

“He has this wonderful charisma that moves people to do more,” Oladugba says. “He inspires his teammates. He’s a very good leader.”

He is also highly ambitious. Asked what his ultimate goal is, Adewopo says he wants to be “the best player worldwide in basketball and floor hockey.”

Meeting Adewopo left a lasting impression on Osa Seven, who was struck by the teen’s talent and versatility.

“It’s really inspiring to see a young kid who can not only play hockey and (is) one of the best players on his team, to (also) actually love art and actually be able to adapt into this form of art,” he says.

“The fact that he’s a young Nigerian who’s trying to do all these things is very impressive and inspiring. He’s pushing the limits and trying to be a better person.”

Photo credit: Jared Blitz and Emeka Mbaebie