Segun Toriola remains the most successful African table tennis player at the Commonwealth Games. He was  the first gold medalist in the men’s singles of the Manchester 2002 which was the first time table tennis became a medal hauling event at the Friendly  Games. He  has not missed out from winning a medal except in India 2010 when injury forced him out from the games. Despite his unofficial exit from the national team, the untiring Toriola admitted that the Commonwealth Games remains one of the biggest highlights of his illustrious career. OLALEKAN OKUSAN  reports.

Segun Toriola defied all odds at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester in United Kingdom  as unranked player to win the men’s singles of the table tennis event.

Apart from the singles event medal, he was part of the team that settled for silver medal in the team event to pick two medals in the table tennis event for Nigeria.

As the fourth seed Toriola landed Nigeria’s only table tennis gold medal in dramatic style after overcoming number one seed Canadian Johnny Huang 3-11 11-9 6-11 11-7 12-10 11-9 (4-2) in a punishing final.

“My first Commonwealth Games was in Manchester 2002, and I can never forget because that was my first Commonwealth Games where I won a gold medal in the men’s singles,” he recalled.“ It was the first Commonwealth Games that included table tennis as a medal hauling event. Then, nobody expected me to win a medal because we had some top players from Singapore, England and Canada.

“ But I played against Chinese-born Canadian Johnny Huang in the final and he was very strong and top ranking who was well known. In the final, nobody believed I could win the match.

“From the beginning of the tournament, I did not expect to be in the final. Normally, I just went there with the mind-set of ‘let me try my best’ to win a medal. During the beginning of the event when we started with the team matches, Nigeria played very well.

“Monday Merotohun, Kazeem Nasiru and I  played very well but we lost out in the final to England to settle for silver.

“Having played the team events, I had more confidence that I could win a medal in the singles events because being in the team event final gave me more confidence to play singles and nobody believed that I was going to beat Johnny Huang in the final because he was a top player and well respected across the world.

“For me,  Manchester 2002  was the Games that I can never forget. I will always remember it because of the way I played, and it was a big shock to everybody and the whole world that I could win the gold medal in the men’s singles ahead of other top players from Singapore, Canada and England.

“As the first winner of the men’s singles in the Commonwealth Games at Manchester 2002, I was very happy, and excited because it was a big surprise.

“After winning the medal, it was a big change to my career, and it remains indelible in the history of the games.  This boosted my career and helped me a lot.

“ It gave me more confidence and made me believe more in myself and my game. It was one of the wins that helped my career positively because my opponents in the semifinal and final were top players known across the world and nobody believed I could win against them.

“ If we are talking about how my feelings were then, it was something that I can’t express because I was just so happy and over excited that I cannot forget in my life,” Toriola recalled.

Unlike African Games and Olympic Games, Toriola said the Commonwealth Games  is very unique since it is an international multi-sport event involving athletes from the Commonwealth of Nations.

He continued: “The uniqueness of attending the Commonwealth Games is that it is a special competition like the Olympics. It is where all the athletes meet together and try to share experience apart from participation in different kinds of events.

“ It is kind of a special event that humanity celebrates like a festival. When you participate in the African Games for example, your game spirit is different than when you participate in the Olympics games.

“The Commonwealth Games is different because everybody knows it is participated by Commonwealth nations so all the athletes there are easy to communicate with and meet them because  almost everybody speaks English. That’s the big difference.

“In the African and Olympics Games, you meet a lot of athletes, a lot of people and sometimes they want to communicate with you but unfortunately, they cannot speak English but during the Commonwealth Games, everybody there from the athletes to the coaches and officials speak English apart from participating and it is very easy for athletes to communicate,” he added.

Altogether, Toriola won two gold, two silver and three bronze medals in all his participation at the Commonwealth Games and he described all the medals as precious.

He said:  “All the medals I won at the Commonwealth Games are very precious to me. From singles, doubles to team events medals, all of them are precious because I know it is not easy to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games.

“I’m so happy because winning the commonwealth game is not easy at all. They are all precious to me because the medals aided my career and I’m so happy about my feats at the games even though I am not participating again as an athlete for now.

“There are a lot of memorable moments especially my first Commonwealth Games. Like I said before, all the  games have its  spirit  and I can never forget all the Commonwealth Games I played. “

Toriola  further described his missing the 2010 edition in India as unfortunate following the recurring injury that forced him out, even as he shared  some pitfalls inherent  in Team Nigeria’s previous preparations for  international competitions especially, the Commonwealth Games.

“The lesson I learnt during the Commonwealth Games is that most of the countries we compete against are well prepared more than us and we have to struggle sometimes,” Toriola remarked.“ Yet  we are  usually mentally stable than most of the athletes.

“ Nigerian athletes are mentally strong  because the way we prepare for the games is very wrong and also it is very difficult for athletes to win any medal.

“Like this year’s Commonwealth Games, the preparation is very bad in Nigeria. I think that’s the lesson I learnt from the Commonwealth Games because when you see other athletes in the games, you will know that they are well prepared,” he added.