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Adversity into Opportunity - how Konan Blaise Koko overcame polio to change his fortunes.

International student, rights advocate, and world-class athlete, Koko’s story is inspirational.

(September 23, 2022) - Tenacity, resilience and courage. 

These are words that come to mind when people describe Konan Blaise Koko, a third year Biochemistry student at Laurentian University. A proud francophone from the Ivory Coast in West Africa, Koko is a Fulbright scholar alumnus. He held this prestigious scholarship when undertaking his Master’s of Science in Nutrition at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“I love learning,” said Koko, who immigrated to Canada in 2018 with his wife and three daughters. For Koko, the decision to continue his studies in Greater Sudbury, made sense. “I am happy to be here and I feel supported in this community…. I chose Laurentian because of my future professional goals. I would like to work in the medical field, and I’m happy to study at a University that offers bilingual programs…. Keeping my career in mind, I felt that Biochemistry would be a program to help me get to where I want to be.” 

Considering that Koko already holds a Master’s degree, his first Bachelor of Science in Chemistry was obtained at the University of Felix Houphouet Boigny of Cocody in the Ivory Coast. 

While the achievement of one, let alone three degrees, is an impressive feat for any student, Koko’s lived experiences have been filled with challenges. 

At the age of three, Koko fell ill with polio. As a result, his physical mobility was significantly affected. Though he explained that having a wheelchair was essential to his mobility, he also described: “It was very very challenging to get a wheelchair back in my country. It was also difficult to get braces and it was not comfortable wearing braces either. I could not walk long distances. The best way to have freedom in my mobility was to get a wheelchair.” For Koko, this did not become a reality until he reached post-secondary. 

“I realized that I needed to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities,” said Koko. “It is important to help others because without the support of others, including not-for-profits, I don’t think I would have been able to achieve what I have achieved. This is why I try to do my best to be useful in my community and help inspire others.”

As a Master’s student, Koko has led fundraising initiatives to support the purchase and distribution of 120 wheelchairs for other polio survivors near his home community in Africa. “Next summer, I will visit my country and do a follow up on that project to see how the wheelchairs have been useful for recipients.” He is eager to continue this work that helps others, and attributed much of his caring disposition to his mother who he described as his primary motivator. 

While academics and advocacy are important to Koko, so is athleticism. Koko enjoys para-basketball and is also an experienced para-lifter. In fact, at the height of his para-lifting career, he ranked 8th worldwide in his class and nearly qualified for the Paralympic games.  

Now at Laurentian, Koko has taken on a new sport; para-rowing. Dr. Thomas Merritt, Full Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and head coach for the ParaSports program, part of the Sudbury Rowing Club based out of the Northern Water Sports Centre, spoke fondly of Koko’s talent: “Koko is a fantastic addition to the Sudbury Rowing Club accessible sport program. He has an impressive background in accessible sport, including experience with international competition, but he had never rowed before. He's been with the program for a few months now and we are all having a blast. Helping any athlete explore a new sport is one of the best parts of coaching. Working with an athlete with Koko's enthusiasm and joy for living is a treat. He has been an international calibre powerlifter. His power in the boat is amazing - and his laugh as he works through the motions of a completely new sport is infectious. Everyone's practice is better just for having Koko out rowing with us.” 

“It [para-rowing] is just amazing,” said Koko. “My main concern is understanding the technique of rowing but I am happy with the way Dr. Merritt is working with me, focusing on technique. I am feeling confident [in this sport] with the help of Dr. Merritt.” 

When it comes to his overall experience as a Laurentian student, Koko had much to say about the University’s sense of community. “For me, Laurentian is the best university because people have been so willing to help me reach my goals. I work very hard for good grades [and] the Biochemistry department has been supportive…. Faculty are available for students. That is rare in education in this world, [but] at Laurentian, lab technicians, professors, students, staff, they all look out for your success. I am a French student but I take courses in English because I love improving my bilingualism. In labs, sometimes the professor or technician helps me better understand by speaking to me in French…. And that is amazing.” 

Koko’s student and athletic journey is one to celebrate. He anticipates that he will soon be competing in para-rowing, and couldn’t be more excited about it. 

Read more about the ParaSports program at the Northern Water Sports Centre in Sudbury in this article published by