Lumumba: A quest for gold, life

Last spring, Seun Adebiyi LAW ’09 approached me in the Law School student lounge and asked if I could help him train as a sprinter. I imagined he was trying to get in shape, maybe lose a few pounds or win a bet against a lowly first-year. It was only after I told him I was a slow ex-football player did he reveal that he needed speed and power if he wanted to make the Nigerian Winter Olympics Skeleton team. I laughed; he didn’t, and I realized his quest was not a cheap copy of Disney’s “Cool Runnings,” but a serious, calculated bid for Olympic success from a young man who had long taken on impossible challenges, and won. What neither of us knew, however, was that his greatest challenge would not be qualifying for the games but living to see them.

Adebiyi was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and moved to the United States with his mother at the age of 6. Although he grew up in Huntsville, Alabama with little money, he dreamed big; he wanted to compete in the Olympics for his native Nigeria. “I’ve been obsessed with the Olympics always,” Adebiyi said in the New York Daily News; “I just feel like it’s my destiny.”

This was not just the folly of a 6-year-old on a competitive swim team, however. By the time he was 14 — then in a high school for Olympic hopefuls — he had already broken a Nigerian record and was fourth for his age in the U.S. At 16, he was on track to represent Nigeria in Sydney when a stress-fracture in his back kept him from competing. Then four years later, he missed qualifying for the 2004 Summer Games by a tenth of a second in the 50-meter freestyle.

After the setback in 2004, Seun set new goals. But despite triumphing as a Yale Law student, operations analyst for Goldman Sachs and amateur pilot, Seun’s childhood goal of becoming an Olympic athlete still lingered.

Seun asked his classmates at the Law School to be a part of one final run for Olympic greatness — this time qualifying for a winter sport. With the help of friends on an exploratory committee, he choose skeleton — like luge or bobsled, except that the sport requires competitors to race at speeds up to 80 miles per hour down an icy track, head first.

The challenge was right up Seun’s alley.

He was in the full throes of preparation, when in June of 2009, he was diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma and stem-cell leukemia. The two rare and particularly aggressive forms of cancer require a bone marrow transplant for the best chances of survival. Donors of similar ethnic backgrounds are the best matches for recipients, and only 8 percent of donors in the National Bone Marrow Registry are African American. As a result only one in six African Americans who need transplants receive them.

Seun, unsurprisingly, chose to fight. He didn’t give up his Olympic hopes, but merely supplemented one goal with another: registering more than 10,000 people for the National Bone Marrow Registry. Between chemotherapy treatments he did lunges in the hospital hallways while pulling an intravenous stand closely behind. And then Seun worked the Internet. He wrote letters, sent e-mails, posted YouTube videos and encouraged all who crossed his path to register soon — to register now.

Inspired by the opportunity to help Seun in his quest, the Yale Black Law Students Association organized a drive that registered 90 people and exceeded participation expectations by 50 percent. But Seun’s story — told though his blog — has reached far beyond Yale and New Haven. The New York Times has written about him; Rihanna and Grey’s Anatomy’s Jason Cooper have joined Seun’s cause.

But there is still a long way to go. Many donors are still needed to reach 10,000, and the only way Seun will succeed is if bone marrow registration is actively encouraged. Today begins the Olympics and finds Seun in the hospital with what will hopefully be his final treatment. Let’s get him to Russia in 2014 and those facing similar diseases a match.

Tafari Lumumba is a second-year student at the Law School and the president of Yale Black Law Student’s Association.

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