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|August 17, 2000||
Cereal thrillerLaurie Nealin in Winnipeg, Canada
Daniel Igali, reigning world freestyle wrestling champion and Olympic gold medal contender, grew up in Nigeria, one of 21 children, sleeping three to a bed and eating four to a plate.
He credits his impoverished beginnings with giving him the fierce survival instinct that helped make him the world's best in the 151 pounds (69 kg) class and the one to beat next month in Sydney.
"You had to learn to eat fast, even when the food was hot, to fill yourself up. Otherwise you'd be hungry," said Igali in recalling his huge family, which included his father's four wives.
"You look at it from here and you know it was poverty," said the 26-year-old in a recent telephone interview from his Surrey, B.C. home.
"We had bread and eggs but they were expensive and there was not enough to go around, so we had about three people sharing one egg.
"But it was (a privilege) because you had classmates who did not have any eggs in the morning."
Now he has his picture on a breakfast cereal box.
Last March following an emotional acceptance speech he delivered when he was named Canada's 1999 outstanding male amateur athlete, General Mills signed Igali to his first endorsement deal, which includes his picture on a Cheerios box.
"As a kid growing up, even in Nigeria, I saw big-time athletes on some things like that, and here it's people like (Wayne) Gretzky. For me to be on the Cheerios box is different. It's fulfilling," said Igali.
"General Mills had already picked the athletes they wanted for their sponsorships but after the awards, their vice-president of marketing congratulated me, and I said, "I don't have a sponsor yet and I eat Cheerios," chuckled Igali, a virtual unknown prior to the Canadian Sport Award ceremony.
In accepting his Canadian award, Igali told the heart-rending story of the Canadian woman who became his surrogate mother and encouraged his athletic dreams. She died of cancer just days after he won his 1999 world title.
"Every time I think about Maureen (Metheney), I get very emotional. I still want to pick up the phone and call her after I get home from practice .... We made plans about going to the World Championships last year and the Olympics.
"It was a tough thing to deal with. I know she will be in Sydney because she has never broken a promise. I know I'm going to do well and that she will be proud of my achievements," Igali says.
Although he is also very close with his birth mother in Nigeria, it is unlikely she will be in Sydney because it scares her to watch him compete, Igali says.
"There were only two sports we did back home -- wrestling and soccer. Wrestling is very inexpensive. You just need shorts and a piece of grass or sand to wrestle on," noted the 5-ft-6 (1.68 metres) athlete.
Igali remained in Canada after the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria and now competes under the Canadian flag. He also is a student of criminology at Simon Fraser University.
"I do feel strongly about Nigeria but Canada is my country now, and who brought me to this level. What I'm going out to do in Sydney is for Canada," added Igali, who has dominated international matches over the last eight months.
Asked who his toughest Olympics opponents will be, Igali said: "I think it will be me. I just have to wrestle well and do the things I'm capable of. I'm not really focused on any one person but when you look at our weight class, on any given day, about five people can win -- the Ukrainian, the Armenian, the Turk, (American Lincoln) McIlravy and me .... If there's anybody I'm confident can win, it's me."
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