Philip Adejumo: The PhD candidate at Yale who wants to represent Nigeria in swimming at the Olympics

by MATTHEW DE GEORGE | Swimming World Magazine

Philip Adejumo’s first post-graduate move didn’t have swimming in mind. Now that he’s chasing an Olympic berth for Nigeria, his second is more considered in the athletic realm. Adejumo wrapped up his career at the University of Maryland Baltimore County with a flourish in 2018: Five gold medals (two individual), two school records and one America East mark at the conference championships.

He had a postgrad position as a staff researcher at Vanderbilt University Medical Center lined up and while he hoped to continue swimming, that wasn’t the career he was most focused on. It was almost a happy accident that he found himself a 10-minute walk from Nashville Aquatic Club, training under John Morse and in a group with Gretchen Walsh and other top club swimmers.

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“He just kind of showed up one day and we didn’t know him, didn’t know anything about him,” Morse said. “Usually we’re pretty apprehensive about somebody coming in, very protective of the culture we’ve developed within the senior group, and he just kind of showed up and once we got him in the water and got him going, we were excited about his potential but also excited about the dynamic that he brought to the training group.”

Two years later, Adejumo’s next move is no less impressive academically, having been accepted to an MD/Ph.D. program at Yale. But this time, as Adejumo vetted programs, he factored in his desire to swim past the Tokyo Olympics, even if had they been held this summer as scheduled. He opted for Yale in part because he’d worked out an arrangement to train with the swim team.

“I chose Yale because they have a very flexible curriculum,” Adejumo said this week. “They have athletes in other sports still competing or still training, and so I thought to myself, if I did want to continue swimming, if I did want to continue competing, it would probably only be possible at a school like Yale.”

The decision shows the growth that Adejumo has enjoyed in the pool, as his academics have flourished apace. And it gives him a chance to blaze trails in and out of the pool.

The doctor is in

Being accepted to medical school during an unprecedented global pandemic is unusual, Adejumo admits. But being stuck at home, watching COVID-19 spread across the globe, has given him time to reflect on his career path.


Adejumo majored in biochemistry and statistics at UMBC. The Vanderbilt position is in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, using electronic health-record data to tease out macro-level health outcomes in populations, from effectiveness of care interventions to drug interactions and side effects. The data works at the scale of hospitals and health systems, analyzing how to optimize care.

Seeing the pandemic’s disparate effects based on race and socioeconomic status, paired with the recent global protests against systemic racism and institutional inequality against populations of color, has given Adejumo a lot to ponder. He’s not set on a specialty yet, short of his attraction to the power of statistics and quantitative analysis. The seven-year Yale program offers ample time to explore interests, and the unique potential of the moment offers food for thought.

“It’s definitely caused me to reassess and think more about how each of us individually have a part to play in health and healthcare as a whole,” Adejumo said. “That alongside everything that’s happening in the country with minorities especially, it’s made me think a lot about how we can improve health outcomes in predominantly black communities. It’s been really insightful.

“It’s been crazy to see some of the fallacies in our health system and some of the places that we have a lot of room for improvement in the years to come. I think without the pandemic, we wouldn’t have realized our health systems or our government is susceptible to something like this, and it’s opened a lot of our eyes and mine.”

That consciousness ties into his swimming future. Adejumo, a native of Elkridge, Maryland, holds dual American-Nigerian citizenship. He’s stayed connected with Nigeria, taking frequent trips to visit family there. By picking medicine, Adejumo has centered his heritage, hoping to help back home and using the deficits he observes there to inform his path.

He didn’t think, though, that the same process would have applied to swimming.

“Whenever you go to Nigeria, I always think, how do I give back? Which has driven a lot of my academic pursuits, too,” Adejumo said. “But even in the sport of swimming, even when I go back there now and I’m driving around, it’s crazy to me that I’m representing these people on an international scale. When they have the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games or even the Pro Swim Series, I’m representing the people that I’m seeing here. It’s a surreal experience to be able to do something for my home.”

Leading a nation

Adejumo takes a studious approach to his place in the swimming world. He prefaces his international goals with a brief history of African swimming – of the power centers of South Africa and northern African nations, of Zimbabwean Kristy Coventry, of the deficits elsewhere on the continent. Growing up, he had no idea that swimming for Nigeria was a possibility, for the absence of role models.

Nigeria’s Olympic history is sparse, just 10 swimmers (five men, five women) since 1992. It has never sent more than two swimmers to an Olympics and didn’t have a representative at the 2012 London Games. None of its swimmers have ever progressed from prelims. That’s despite being Africa’s most populous (at 200 million people) country, with a prosperous diaspora. It was a revelation for Adejumo to see Nigeria’s flag at the 2017 World Championships, the first glimpse of a possible international future.

Adejumo is one of Nigeria’s most prominent swimming hopes. He holds national records in the 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly, showing his rare versatility. He’s chasing an Olympic B cut, which would likely earn an at-large selection to the Games. But he puts his striving in a larger context of the paucity of Olympic A cuts for sub-Saharan swimmers, a barrier he hopes to break.

After graduation from UMBC, Adejumo connected with the Nigerian federation to discuss representing the country. He swam at the 2018 Short-Course World Championships in Hangzhou, China, an experience that only whetted his appetite, a “pretty surreal experience.” He swam the 50 and 100 butterfly, finishing 54th and 41st, respectively. Considering that he entered unseeded, in the second heat of 11 in the 50 fly and second of eight in the 100, it constituted a strong showing.

It’s also a testament to his improvement in Nashville. At 5-foot-7, Adejumo doesn’t have a typical sprinter’s stature. But he’s powerfully built, and his work ethic helps compensate for his height.

“We don’t have a postgrad group. We have a few postgrads that blend in with our high school kids and of course in the summer time, our college kids,” Morse said. “And oftentimes, that can be a difficult type of a situation. But in the case of Philip, he’s been great. He’s been a mentor to a lot of the swimmers and a role model. He’s been very, very good for our team.”

Adejumo has a chance to be for others exactly what he didn’t find growing up: A role model for aspiring swimmers, from Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. He hopes achieving his goals will help others formulate and strive for their own aims.

“There’s Nigerians everywhere,” he said. “And I think that me representing Nigeria, it’s been cool being that figurehead for a country that’s not usually recognized in swimming, and it’s cool to see Nigeria getting so excited for me competing and getting so excited for me to progress and get faster and beat some of the countries that I don’t think they thought they could compete with in the past. That’s really exciting right now. I’m hoping that there are more Nigerian swimmers that are coming out of the weeds, because I don’t think I knew that this was a possibility, and I’m sure that there’s others out there like me, too.”

Read from source SwimmingWorld Magazine