Olympic Hopeful's Dreams Include Beating Cancer Not only was Seun Adebiyi a Yale Law School graduate with a pilot's license who overcame a fractured spine; he also harbored Olympic dreams. But after moving to a training center to practice skeleton, a Winter Olympic sport, he was diagnosed with leukemia.
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Olympic Hopeful's Dreams Include Beating Cancer

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Olympic Hopeful's Dreams Include Beating Cancer

Olympic Hopeful's Dreams Include Beating Cancer

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Nigeria has never competed in the Winter Olympic sport called skeleton. In fact, Nigeria has never sent any athlete to any Winter Games event. One Nigerian-American wants to change that. A 26-year-old graduate of Yale Law School has decided that the headfirst sled is the way to bring his home country winter glory, hopefully in 2014.

But his obstacles go far beyond sport, as NPR's Mike Pesca tells us.

MIKE PESCA: Seun Adebiyi was 6 years old when he left Nigeria and arrived in Alabama. It was the only place his mother, a math professor, could get a job. She was the kind of woman for whom the challenge of being a single mom in a new country wasn't enough. She founded a nonprofit to educate schoolchildren. To fund her teaching, she and Seun picked crops, but that was a lesson as well.

Mr. SEUN ADEBIYI (Athlete): My mother has a Ph.D. She went to Oxford on full scholarship, and here she is working in the Alabama sun, picking crops because she has a dream.

PESCA: By the time he was a teenager, Seun landed at a private school in Jacksonville, Florida, as a scholar and a swimmer. He fractured his spine. He made a comeback. He missed swimming for Nigeria in the Olympics by a tenth of a second.

Seun wound up majoring in math and the classics as an undergrad, and then enrolled in Yale Law School. By the time graduation came around, he knew he could rededicate himself to his Olympic dream. He figured the Winter Games might be his ticket, but which sport? He and his friends began watching some YouTube videos.

Mr. ADEBIYI: And we decided cross-country skiing was way too hard. We decided I'd probably kill myself in downhill skiing. I've never shot a gun. Biathlon was out.

PESCA: Hockey, no. Luge, suicide.

Mr. ADEBIYI: And then we found skeleton. And everyone was like, what's this?

PESCA: Skeleton became Seun's new passion. He took a job with Goldman Sachs in Salt Lake City, home to one of the country's two tracks dedicated to this headfirst, sliding sport that reaches 80 miles an hour. Seun began training five hours a day. It was daunting but doable until...

Mr. ADEBIYI: Until life comes and knocks along, and you just take another route.

PESCA: Seun is standing in the kitchen of an apartment on Manhattan's East Side. The location is significant because it's two blocks from Sloan-Kettering Memorial, a hospital known for its cancer care.

Mr. ADEBIYI: Right now, I've got two teaspoons of posaconazole. I've got some lansoprazole. I've got...

PESCA: A few months ago, Seun found out that he had stem cell leukemia and lymphoblastic lymphoma, two particularly aggressive forms of cancer for which a bone marrow transplant was the best treatment. But Seun couldn't find a match.

This isn't unusual for Africans or African-Americans, who are underrepresented in the registry and have a tissue type that's harder to match than Caucasians. Seun decided he needed to do something about this.

He got in touch with Katharina Harf, the executive vice president of the bone marrow donor center DKMS.

Ms. KATHARINA HARF (Executive Vice President, DKMS): You know, the first time I met him, I just, I just was like, oh my God, we have to work with this guy, and he's just so incredibly inspiring.

PESCA: So with DKMS's help, he flew with his mom to Nigeria, where they established the country's first bone marrow registry. This Sunday, he's sponsoring a bone marrow drive at New York City's Yale Club. And he still trains, even through chemotherapy.

Mr. ADEBIYI: When I was staying in the hospital for seven weeks, I would do lunges in the hallway and push my IV tube beside me, and the nurses would line up behind me and start doing lunges.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ADEBIYI: So I had this little parade going on.

PESCA: Seun smiles a lot more than you'd except from a person who'll enter the hospital in two weeks to get a cord blood transplant, then spend about six weeks in isolation, and then the better part of a year without a functioning immune system.

He says living with cancer is like living a highly concentrated, extremely potent version of life.

Mr. ADEBIYI: I feel very free. At the same time, I know that in a couple of weeks, I'm going to have - I'm going to lose a lot of freedom. I'm going to lose all control over my schedule. I'm going to lose control over what I eat, who I see. I'm going to lose my bone marrow, and then I'm going to literally be reborn.

PESCA: Seun says there's a parallel between being a skeleton athlete and his overall life. There's a time for all-out effort, and then there's a time for surrender.

Soon, this super-achieving young man will rely on his doctor's skill, his body's resilience - and just plain luck. He refers to this as the risky time. And then, he says, the dream begins anew. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)


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