Toriola continues to defy age, qualifies for seventh Olympics

Nigerian table tennis player Segun Toriola, 42, who also coaches his national team, cites discipline as a key factor for his longevity and winning golds at the continental and Commonwealth Games levels.
Nigerian table tennis player Segun Toriola, 42, who also coaches his national team, cites discipline as a key factor for his longevity and winning golds at the continental and Commonwealth Games levels.ST PHOTO: CHUA SIANG YEE

KUALA LUMPUR • Search Segun Toriola on Google and among the top results is a video of a 41-shot rally between the Nigerian paddler and Singapore's Gao Ning at the last Commonwealth Games.

From the way he pranced about, returning each of Gao's smashes in the video, which has had nearly two million views, one can hardly tell Toriola was turning 40 then.

But that sums up the ageless athlete, who is a four time All-African Games singles champion. Even today, as he approaches 42, the paddler continues to make headlines.

Last month, the Lagos native qualified for his seventh Olympics after winning the ITTF-Africa Olympic Qualification Tournament, becoming the 28th athlete - and the only African - to manage such a feat.

The Rio Games will also mark his last Olympics, completing a streak which started in 1992. Toriola confirmed he would retire from the international scene after August.

The convivial Toriola told The Straits Times at the ongoing World Team Table Tennis Championships: "If you asked me in 1992, I'd never have expected to play in seven Olympics. It's not easy just to qualify for one. It's unbelievable."

For the past three years, he has also taken on the role of player-coach with the national team. Yesterday, his team beat Vietnam 3-0 to qualify for the second division's round of 16.

Citing discipline as a key factor to his longevity, the self-professed homebody said: "As a top-level athlete in any sport, you need to sacrifice a lot of things. You don't have to follow your friends, don't have to party too much."

Not bad for a man who once thought his career was over when it had barely begun. When he was 18, Toriola said he was barred from playing in junior events - since he kept winning.

His first year in the senior national championships, however, was far from smooth sailing.

"It was a big challenge, very difficult. I remember thinking 'this is going to be the end of my career' because all the seniors are so tough."

But he held on and reached the final of the doubles event, which gave him the belief that he could make the cut. Which he did.

Besides winning multiple golds at continental championships, he also has two Commonwealth Games golds. At the 2008 Olympics, he reached the round of 32, only the second African to do so.

But there were also lows, most notably at the 1996 Games, where he failed to get out of the group stage despite being at the peak of his game.

Not that it ever dulled his love for a sport to which his father, a former police officer, introduced him. It was the senior Toriola's way of keeping his nine children at home instead of letting them become idle or join street gangs.

He said: "I just love table tennis. Even when I'm old, like 60 or 70 years old, I'll still continue playing for fun."

And just in case you were wondering, at the end of the now-famous 41-shot rally, Toriola won the point - a fitting end for a man who has made winning a habit.

Chua Siang Yee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2016, with the headline 'Toriola continues to defy age, qualifies for seventh Olympics'. Print Edition | Subscribe