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USA Volleyball’s Nigerian Gem: Chiaka Ogbogu on Cultural Impact and Olympic Gold

How Ogbogu embraces Nigerian roots
United States volleyball star Chiaka Ogbogu sits down with Mary Omatiga to discuss taking pride in her Nigerian heritage, her Olympics success and the pride that exists within Nigerian culture.

Middle Blocker Chiaka Ogbogu, 29, helped the U.S. women’s volleyball team capture its first-ever Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Games. While Americans nationwide were celebrating their victory with tears of joy and cheers of triumph, thousands of miles away in Nigeria, Ogbogu’s extended family was equally elated.

Ogbogu, a first-generation Nigerian-American who grew up in Coppell, Texas, reflects on the transformative power of representation and how that gold-medal moment transcended both cultures in the conversation below.

The Texas alum is set to make her second Olympic appearance at the 2024 Paris Games, where the U.S. women aim to defend their gold medal.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You are a first-generation Nigerian-American. What tribe is your family from and what does your name mean?

Chiaka Ogbogu: Both of my parents are Igbo, and my name in Igbo means “God decides”.

What was it like growing up in a Nigerian household?

Ogbogu: I tell people all the time, it felt like living a double life in all the best ways. I’m first-generation. I grew up in American culture when it came to school, sports, and most of my social life but when I was home it was like being transported to Nigeria. Both of my parents were born and raised in Nigeria and spent most of their life there. They made it very apparent that [our] household, was a Nigerian household. So it came with all the customs, food, and gatherings.

My upbringing was really cool because of that. I hold on to a lot of those memories and now looking back, I’m just really grateful that my parents made it a point to ensure that me and my siblings grew up in a household of our culture.

Tell me more about your parents. How old were they when they moved to the U.S. and what have they shared with you about their upbringing in Nigeria?

Ogbogu: I’m not sure exactly how old my dad [Henry] was. He is a medical doctor. He went to med school in Nigeria but did his residency in New York. I don’t know what age that typically happens but my mom [Victoria] moved here in her early 20s and they both met in New York, which I thought was really ironic. They had me in New Jersey and then we moved to Dallas shortly after.

Now that you’re older do you feel like you’re able to fully understand the magnitude of the sacrifices your parents made in moving to another country for a better life, especially with you playing overseas professionally? Has that ever crossed your mind, and if so, how does it make you feel?

Ogbogu: Yes! My experience now playing overseas is a big testament to my parents. It’s not easy to go to a foreign country where you aren’t accustomed to the cultures, you don’t really know a lot of people. I have a lot of shared experiences with them of feeling really uncomfortable in a new place, going there for my career, and still overcoming many challenges to thrive.

My mom tells me all the time that she has no regrets; she just knew that she wanted her eventual children to have limitless possibilities and [based on] everything she knew about America, [she believed] that was [achievable] here.

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Chiaka’s Instagram

What are some values and traditions from your Nigerian culture that have made you into the person and athlete that you are today?

Ogbogu: Oh, that’s a great question! I am very biased but I believe Nigerians are some of the most hardworking people I’ve ever come across. It was definitely a family value that was instilled in my brothers and me. But I think culturally across the board, work ethic, as well as respect is a huge thing. Especially respect for elders and just being polite in that sense. But I think the biggest thing is just working hard. If you have that work ethic then no one can take that away from you or take anything away from you. Everything that is within your reach, you can take essentially.

What is your favorite thing about being Nigerian?

Ogbogu: I have a couple things. Food is number one. I know there’s an ongoing debate about Ghanaian Jollof rice vs Nigerian Jollof rice. I’m biased, obviously I will always say Nigerian Jollof rice is better. I think Nigerian food is so good.

I love the new hype and wave around Afrobeats. [I grew up listening to] a lot of Nigerian artists, obviously the sound is a little bit different now than it was in the 90s and early 2000s but it’s just been really cool to see. So many cultures across the board really embrace African music and African musicians.

I also think Nigerians are natural-born comedians. I know at a lot of family functions, it’s nonstop laughter and I have a lot of memories growing up of that.

You started playing volleyball in middle school. Did you ever imagine that this is what your life would be like? What would middle school Chiaka think of this version of you?

Ogbogu: I absolutely did not imagine my life would look like this. I tell people all the time that the Olympics was not really a dream of mine. Not because I never thought it would be a cool opportunity, but I never thought that it would happen for me just because growing up in a Nigerian household, they pride themselves on education. We joke about the three careers that you’re allowed to have—a doctor, lawyer, or engineer—and professional athlete is not on that list. So it never was something I thought would get to this point or magnitude.

I don’t know what middle school Chiaka would say. She probably wouldn’t believe that this was her calling. I enjoyed volleyball at that age, and it was a really cool introduction because I got to do it with my friends, which is why I even started playing volleyball. So, to think that I would have made it to this point at that age, I wouldn’t have believed it.

VakifBank v Imoco Volley Conegliano - CEV Women's Champions League

ISTANBUL, TURKIYE - FEBRUARY 20: Chiaka Ogbogu of VakifBank in action against Kelsey Robinson-Cook of Imoco Volley Conegliano during CEV Women’s Champions League quarter finals 1st leg volleyball match between VakifBank and Imoco Volley Conegliano in Istanbul, Turkiye on February 20, 2024. (Photo by Ahmet Okatali/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Anadolu via Getty Images

I’ve heard you say that when you received your first recruitment letter, that’s kind of when a switch went off for you and you were like okay, if I work harder at this I can earn more but what was your parents’ initial reaction to you playing volleyball and when did they realize that this could be serious for you?

Ogbogu: They were very supportive. [When I first started] playing volleyball I think it was just a natural thing for kids where I grew up to have a lot of extracurricular activities. I think their biggest [priority] was always that school comes first, so as long as it didn’t interfere with my studies, they were all for it.

I think when I received my first recruitment letter, that’s when my parents realized, ‘Whoa, this volleyball thing can take you to different heights.’ Originally, it was about the potential for earning a scholarship to a good university, so they encouraged me to take advantage of that opportunity and continue working hard. They saw the vision after visiting college campuses and doing a little bit more research and became more and more comfortable with the idea that [volleyball] was not going to interfere with, but rather support, my goals.

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Volleyball World

When we spoke last summer, you mentioned that your former teammate, three-time Olympian Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson, who is also Nigerian, was one of your role models when you were coming up in the sport. Can you talk about how her example helped ease your parents’ minds about the idea of you playing volleyball professionally?

Ogbogu: Yes, oh, my queen! I think when it came time to [decide] whether I would pursue grad school or take this opportunity to play professionally, I had a list of Nigerian-American female athletes [who chose] the professional athlete route instead of further education. They have been really successful and have been able to branch off into a myriad of different things.

[Foluke] was at the top of the list and I got advice from her. I think the cool thing about being a Nigerian-American is we all live a lot of the same experiences. So just like I was preparing to have this talk with my parents to convince them that this is something I really wanted to do, she had done it years before. So I was getting advice from her. She said, ‘Ultimately, your parents will come around. Secondly, we have to understand that this is all new to them as well. It’s not initially what they intended for their children when they came to America. It’s a nuanced thing, so the more you explain, and provide examples, the more they will become comfortable with the idea. And then, it’s also just a matter of time—time tells everything.’

Foluke was an example, the Ogwumike sisters, Nneka and Chiney, both professional women’s basketball players, were an example. My dad follows sports, religiously, so hearing about them and their success at Stanford, in the WNBA, and in their individual endeavors [helped]. Having more examples of really strong, Nigerian-American female athletes was really helpful in just assuring my parents that I was making the right decision.

Volleyball - Olympics: Day 14

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 06: Foluke Akinradewo #16 and Chiaka Ogbogu #24 of Team United States hug after defeating Team Serbia during the Women’s Semifinals on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Arena on August 06, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

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Those are some powerhouse women on your list! Fast forward to the Olympics. At this point, I’m sure your name has already been in every single one of your parents’ WhatsApp group chats due to all the success you’ve had—earning a full scholarship to play at the University of Texas where you were the school’s all-time blocks leader, and playing professionally overseas.

I’m sure you’ve made your parents proud, and that’s probably an understatement. What do you think it meant to them to see you not only go to the Olympics, but to win gold, and to do it with a Nigerian last name on an American jersey?

Ogbogu: It’s really cool to think about because, to your point of WhatsApp, they were getting messages from distant family members, family friends, and friends-of-friends [expressing] how proud they were of me. This included people that they don’t often talk to or haven’t met. I know my parents are super proud of me.

Seeing a Nigerian name on an American jersey or an American something holds a lot of weight. I’m sure it was beyond their wildest dreams for one of their children. To this day, it’s so funny; my mom will be on the phone with someone from back home, and she’ll mention that I’m in the room and they’ll be like ‘The Olympian?! The gold medalist?!’

It’s really cool knowing that it extends far beyond my parents and I’ve realized how much weight it holds. It’s not just for my immediate family or even my distant family. I think it holds a lot of weight for Nigerians [all over] the world. I don’t take that lightly. It’s an honor to represent Nigeria.

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USA Volleyball

You just touched on it a little bit, but how special was that moment for your extended family back in Nigeria?

Ogbogu: My mom was sending me videos and messages of all of them freaking out post-Tokyo, how proud they were of me, and how they all wanted a jersey to take back. I think my mom ended up giving one of my uncles a jersey to take back to Nigeria. It was really humbling and honestly emotional just to hear how inspired they were. My uncles were telling me, even though I’m like a third of their age, how proud they were and how inspired they were by me.

What does your gold medal victory mean to the Nigerian community? Have people come up to you or messaged you?

Ogbogu: Yes, I [experienced] a similar scenario this past summer with a Nigerian men’s volleyball player. He plays at an Ivy League school and is his parents’ dream [child]. He [asked me for advice] about how I helped my parents be more comfortable with the idea of a professional volleyball career.

It was really cool just to be on the other end of that because for so long, I was the one who was seeking answers and advice from the people that I had mentioned. Having a younger male [ask me for advice] made me realize that this is really transcending Nigerian culture, sports, and volleyball.

It’s really cool to be a part of it and we’re keeping in touch—he is killing it. It was a full-circle moment for me. I’ve had many instances like this through social media messages, but that moment for sure was something that made me feel emotional because this is really what it’s all about—representation. People can’t [aspire to] be something unless they see it. If they have examples and get to speak to those examples, who knows what they’ll be able to accomplish.

United States v Dominican Republic - Women's Volleyball Nations League 2024

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - MAY 19: Avery Skinner and Chiaka Ogbogu of the United States jumps to spike the ball against during Pool 2 match between United States and Dominican Republic as part of the Women’s Volleyball Nations League 2024 on May 19, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

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I love that and I’m sure that meant so much to him! What did winning Olympic gold mean to you?

Ogbogu: It’s a testament to this program and I feel like it’s been a long time coming. We’ve had so many talented people that I’ve idolized and looked up to when I was younger and throughout my career. Winning gold felt like a thank you to them, because in a lot of ways they paved the way. Specifically for myself, knowing the Brown girls who came through this program, I felt really special to be a part of that. I don’t even think I would have been in this position had I not seen them go through it.

Volleyball - Olympics: Day 16

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 08: Players of Team United States react after they defeated Team Brazil during the Women’s Gold Medal Match on day sixteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Arena on August 08, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

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Volleyball - Olympics: Day 16

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 08: Players of Team United States react after defeating Team Brazil during the Women’s Gold Medal Match on day sixteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Arena on August 08, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

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USA’s Jordan Thompson (R) poses with USA’s Justine Wong-Orantes (C) and USA’s Chiaka Ogbogu (L) with their women’s volleyball gold medals at a ceremony during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Arena in Tokyo on August 8, 2021. (Photo by JUNG Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

Volleyball - Olympics: Day 16

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 08: Players of Team United States react after receiving their Gold Medals during the Victory Ceremony following the Women’s Gold Medal Volleyball match between Brazil and United States on day sixteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Arena on August 08, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

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What did you learn from your experience at the Tokyo Games?

Ogbogu: Going into Tokyo I was dealing with some injuries and I didn’t think that I would make the team. But my experience is a reminder that I can do and overcome difficult things. Something I try to tell myself is that what God has for me, no man can take. So as long as I remember that, I don’t believe that there’s anything that can stop me or this team from what we are destined to have.

How would you describe the dynamic of the U.S. Women’s National Volleyball Team?

Ogbogu: We do a really good job of putting the team first. It sounds cliché and corny but we can all speak to the fact that we’ve been on teams where that hasn’t been the case. Everyone is so committed to [creating] a good experience for all and that is what makes it so easy to work [together]. When you have a good work environment you’re more willing to show up energized, happy to be there, and willing to give. I really respect the leadership of our staff and the women who have created this culture where the message is clear: everybody is important, everybody has something to contribute, and no one gets left behind.

7-12-23 Chiaka Ogbogu, Haleigh Washington celebrate.jpg

USA Volleyball

Switching gears - when was the last time you went to Nigeria? What was your experience like, and have you ever thought of what your life would have looked like if your parents stayed in Nigeria and had you there?

Ogbogu: The last time I was there was in December 2019. I was actually playing in Italy at the time and we had a week off for the Christmas break. From [Italy] it was like a seven-hour flight, which was nice. I visited my dad’s village with my family. In his village, it’s customary for the father’s sons to [provide] a house there, so my dad shares one with his brothers, and that’s where we stayed for Christmas.

I don’t know what my life would have been like had I grown up there. My parents used to threaten us all the time with that and say, ‘We’re going to send you guys back to Nigeria and you’ll see. You’ll be grateful for what you have here.’ And I’m sure they’re 100% right. But my brothers and I, growing up, were just like, what does that even mean?

But I’m excited to go back! I’m trying to [experience] “Detty December” which is when everyone comes home. I didn’t get to experience it in 2019 and I wasn’t really in Lagos at that time. But I want to go back as an adult with my brothers, family friends, and cousins. The food is amazing, the music, it’s a whole vibe!

When I saw you last summer we talked about how it wasn’t cool to be African growing up. Earlier, you mentioned how we’re seeing Afrobeats trending and so much of African culture is being celebrated right now. Did you see people who looked like you and shared your Nigerian culture while growing up in Texas? Were people accepting of your name and heritage?”

Ogbogu: Earlier, I mentioned this feeling of living a double life—obviously at home and in our Nigerian communities, I was 100% Nigerian, that’s all I knew. But for most of my childhood, I went to predominantly white schools that had diversity, but not a lot of African diversity.

I think as a kid, you never want to stand out too much or be the odd person out. So obviously, coming in and having a name that’s not typical to American culture, it was tough feeling insecure or just embarrassed that it took adults or other kids a while to learn how to properly pronounce my name. For the longest time, I wouldn’t correct them until my dad said ‘If they can pronounce the names of the biggest philosophers, athletes, and heroes of this world, they can learn how to pronounce your name.’

Getting teased, [people would say] ‘What is that? Why does your name sound like this?’ They wouldn’t really care to learn the full pronunciation. I also felt embarrassed if I brought my own lunch, like Jollof rice or some other African dish, and didn’t want people to see it. [They would say] ‘Oh, it smells’ or ‘It looks different.’ Kids are kids, so I can’t blame them for that. But even adults showed ignorance when talking about Africa and resorting to stereotypes.

I think a lot of Africans just chuckle now that Afrobeats is such a big thing because it’s like, ‘Okay, now that’s cool. Now you guys want to be a part of it.’ But any chance that you get to celebrate African culture in general, I think is awesome.

I’m supportive of anyone who wants to listen to the music, try the foods, and visit the countries. I think African culture has a huge influence on the world so it’s just really cool to see that come to life everyday now.

What are more things that you wish people knew about African culture or Nigerian culture specifically?

Ogbogu: African culture in general is not a monolith, there are so many different African countries. Even African countries that border each other could be so different in terms of language, culture, food, politics, etc. [People should] take the time to be sensitive and learn about that. I think in general it takes wanting to learn about something to be correct about something. But just knowing that even within Nigerian culture, not everybody’s upbringing was the same. We joke in our circles that it was, but really getting to know someone else’s individual experience, helps [to understand] their story and how they identify with the culture. But not everybody identifies with their African culture the same way.

Earlier on you talked about being an example for an Ivy League athlete. You are someone else’s “Foluke”. You are a role model for the next generation. What does that mean to you and what does representation mean to you?

Ogbogu: It’s surreal. I think I’ve always had this fixation with representation. I’ve always just naturally gravitated towards people in media who looked like me, sounded like me, or had similar upbringings. I always remember getting excited even watching college volleyball in high school or middle school and seeing that some of the stars on the team are Black, and then learning that some of them were African. I just think it’s so important. It helps build confidence in kids. I definitely can say it helped build my confidence just seeing that representation.

I think it means the world, but it’s incredibly humbling to know that I’m someone’s ‘Foluke’. Even playing with her, I used to joke that I still saw her as an idol for me, even though we were peers. It’s humbling to know that I can be that for someone else.

Poland v USA - Volleyball Olympic Qualifying Tournament

Chiaka Ogbogu , Lauren Carlini , Martyna Lukasik during Poland vs USA FIVB Women’s Volleyball Olympic Qualifying Tournament, in Lodz, Poland on September 23, 2023. (Photo by Foto Olimpik/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

NurPhoto via Getty Images

Africa has the youngest population and is the fastest-growing continent, yet the Olympic Games have never been hosted there. Do you think that we’ll ever see Africa host an Olympics in our lifetime? What needs to change?

Ogbogu: Oh, we should! Our global [volleyball] tournaments are hosted in so many different parts of the world. They’ve taken place in Brazil, a lot of Asian countries, and South America, and lately, the conversation questions why no African country has hosted even though African teams have participated in a lot of these tournaments.

It requires board members who are making these decisions to do research and secure funding. Even for America to host some volleyball tournaments, it’s very expensive, and I know it’s not easy to do. We don’t often host the biggest tournaments because of that. But I think if we really want to see our sport grow, it’s going to take awareness, funding, and [collaboration across] the different delegations to [ensure fairness] and provide opportunities for different continents to get to feel and experience hosting. I think that would help the conversation when it comes to hosting bigger tournaments like the Olympics, World Cups, etc.

Earlier on you said that your name means “God decides.” When you reflect on your journey and where you are now, how do you think that has played out in your story?

Ogbogu: I believe it’s prophetic because a lot of my life felt like I was being led by something I didn’t really understand or have a lot of information about. Even just pursuing volleyball in the beginning, it just felt right. Choosing the University of Texas again just felt right. With each journey, when you’re in it, it doesn’t really feel like it’s always the right thing. You have moments of doubt. You have moments where you feel insecure about your decision, but looking back on everything, I know that God aligned this path for me to get to this point. People say to be careful what you name your children, especially if it has a meaning because that usually tends to come to fruition. But in all the best ways, I think my name has really [manifested].

Vakifbank v Eczacibasi -  CEV Women's Champions League Volley 2023 Final

TURIN, ITALY- MAY 20: Chiaka Ogbogu of Vakifbank during the CEV Women’s Champions League Volley 2023 Final match between Vakifbank and Eczacibasi on May 20, 2023 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Cengiz Malgir/ Dia Images via Getty Images)

dia images via Getty Images

Alright, it’s time for a lightning round and the theme is “For the Culture”. What is your favorite Nigerian dish?

Ogbogu: Jollof rice.

Jollof rice or pounded yam?

Ogbogu: Jollof Rice.

Fried yam or plantains?

Ogbogu: Ooh plantains! I should have said that as my favorite dish!

Afrobeats or Amapiano?

Ogbogu: Afrobeats! Although I do love Amapiano. I’ve just gotten into it recently!

Favorite Afrobeats artist at the moment?

Ogbogu: I like Ayra Starr and Burna Boy.

Most listened to song of 2024 so far?

Ogbogu: Lately it’s been “City Boys” by Burna Boy.

Editor’s Note: By Way of Africa is a series committed to highlighting the talent and stories from the African continent and its diaspora. African stories are worth telling, and the culture—all of the languages, tribes, and traditions—is worth celebrating. Embedded in these narratives is a profound testament to the diligence, discipline, and work ethic deeply ingrained in African heritage. Whether born on the continent or dispersed across the globe, the contributions of these stories to society resound uniquely, by way of Africa.