Updated July 30, 2012
Blessing OKAGBARE, Nigeria (60m/100m/Long Jump/Triple Jump)
Born: October 9, 1988, Sapele, Delta State
Lives: El Paso, Texas, USA
1.80m / 60kg
Coach: John Smith
Manager: Paul Doyle (Doyle Management Group)
When Blessing Okagbare left the shores of Nigeria to study at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), she had little clue what awaits her in the United States. But three years down the line she stands on the cusps of being Africa's best. At UTEP, Okagbare has found a new and fertile ground to explore. Over the past year, one of the world's best jumpers has turned herself into one of the world's best sprinters.
But, Blessing has always seen things differently. Being a staunch Christian, she held strong beliefs she could do all things and all things are possible if you believe and try. Okagbare also wants to be remembered as one of the great female athletes in sports. “I know God has blessed me with talent in track and I want to put it to good use, she said. ”I want to be one of the best athletes out there. I am not done with school yet, I still have to get my business degree, keep doing track and if I can make some money doing it then I would like to own my own business someday.”
Most observers of the 23-year-old meteoric rise up the world sprinting ladder would find it hard to believe she came into the sport by accident and only started sprinting in 2009.
“I grew up in Sapele (in the Niger Delta area) as a normal kid and it gave me a lot of challenges in life. I was forced to change primary schools from the Association Primary School to another school - Okotie Primary School II - because my first school was cancelled,” she said. “Actually, I used to play soccer for my high school sometimes and later on fell in love doing track. A coach/lecturer from my elder sister's high school talked me into doing sports but before then, people always say I look athletic and they just believe I can do sports and later I also got motivated by my friends and family.”
Okagbare says she started jumping in 2004. “I actually was not a long jumper back then, I was a triple jumper. I won a gold medal in long jump and bronze medal in high jump as a Junior athlete for Delta State at the 2004 National Secondary Schools Games in Owerri, Imo State and later that year I attended the 14th National Sports Festival held in Abuja and won a bronze doing the triple jump.” This marked a turning point for Okagbare as she went on to represent Nigeria at the 2006 World Junior Athletics Championships in Beijing, China, but did not make it past the qualifying round.
In May 2007, Okagbare announced her arrival on the national stage with a bang - at the All-Africa Games trials in Lagos. “The first year I competed at the Mobil trials was in 2007 where I won both long and triple jump setting a new national record of 14.13 metres in the triple jump,” she said. Later in July, 2007, at the All-Africa Games in Algiers, Algeria , she won the silver medal in the long jump (6.46m [+1.8] ) and finished fourth (13.77m) in the triple jump. Compatriot Chinonye Ohadugba, who took silver at the event also bettered Okagbare's national record with a 14.21 metres (-0.1) jump.
So, what motivated her to take up the UTEP's scholarship? “As much as I love track and field, I also want to get a degree in Business so when I had the offer I took it because it will be a great opportunity for me to get that degree and also do track more effectively,” Okagbare reaffirms. And does she feel homesick sometimes? “I do, but I really want to get better at what I am doing and so I got to be where I can achieve that. Here in El-Paso I can achieve my goals,” she says as a matter of fact. “Believe me, I would not have come this far if I had remained in Nigeria. It is not as if I’m trying to talk against my country, but it lacks the right facilities and these things limit us.”
At the Beijing Olympic Games 2008, Okagbare, who was only competing because Ukrainian finalist Lyudmila Blonska was thrown out for doping, won a bronze medal in the Women's Long Jump with a personal best jump of 6.91 metres behind Maureen Higa Maggi of Brazil and Tatyana Lebedeva of Russia. "It's the biggest moment of my life. Everything was a big miracle," said Okagbare at the time.
On her making the transition to running the sprints in 2009, Okagbare puts that to good coaching and hard work. It was a light-hearted suggestion by her jump coach, Kebba Tolbert to try some sprinting and after posting 11.21 seconds in her first competitive 100 metres race at a track meet in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she never looked back. “Running the sprint is just one of the surprises for me and I’m putting my talent to work, she says. “For you to be a really good long jumper, you sure need some speed and I worked on getting that speed so, I decided to bring it to the track instead of jumping with it alone. I also see myself doing both if not also adding the 200 metres.”
In July 2009, she won the 100 metres at the Nigeria/Mobil Track and Field Championships with a time of 11.16 seconds, beating favourite and defending champion, Oludamola Osayomi to the national title. She then got injured and had a rather disappointing time at the Berlin World Championships, as she was unable to start though she was entered in the 100m and long jump.
In February 2010, after a one-year hiatus from Collegiate indoor competitions, Okagbare won the US national Indoor titles in the 60 metres and long jump and grabbed top honours in the long jump whilst also breaking the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Championships meet record twice.
Three months later, Okagbare, added NCAA crowns during the outdoor season in the 100 metres and long jump, becoming the first in collegiate history to pull off such a feat. She was undefeated in all sprint and jump finals during the season and drew the curtain on her collegiate career with four national titles, 11 All-America honours and 15 Conference USA championships in 2010.
University of Texas, El Paso's retiring head coach, Bob Kitchens described her as “unique". "No doubt, she is the best woman's athlete I've ever been around my entire coaching career." There's nothing mediocre about her," said Kitchens.
Okagbare was recently named the 2010 Conference USA Female Athlete of the Year, awarded the USTFCCCA Mountain Region Track Athlete and Mountain Region Field Athlete of the Year during the indoor season, the Mountain Region Track Athlete of the Year for the outdoor season and was a finalist at the Honda award. “It really means a lot to me simply for the fact that I am not an American and for them to award that to me means so much to me,” said Okagbare.
In June, Okagbare signed her first professional contract with the Doyle Management Group and had been nominated as one of three finalists for The Bowerman - the highest honour given to collegiate track and field student-athletes by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. The award winners will be announced at the USTFCCCA Convention on 15 December 2010 in San Antonio, Texas.
In July 2010, Okagbare made her Diamond League debut in Eugene, setting a PB over 100m (11.03) before heading to Europe, where she first improved her 200m PB to 22.71 in Lignano (18 July) and then clocked 11.10 in Monaco (22 July), confirming her good shape before heading to Nairobi for the 17th African Athletics Championships.
After arriving in Nairobi as the new face of African sprinting, Okagbare did not disappoint, carting away three gold medals in the 100m, Long Jump and the 4x100m relay whilst erasing the previous Africa 100m Championship record of 11.05 in the process. Her 11.03 clocking also equalled her personal best set earlier in July.
The two gold medals she won on the third day of competition, within a span of five minutes, were more spectacular. Leading the Long Jump competition with her first jump of 6.55 metres, she passed her 3rd and 4th rounds to anchor the Nigerian women's 4x100m relay team to the gold and Championship record of 43.45, then rejoined the competition to win the women's long Jump with a leap of 6.62 metres in her penultimate jump.
After the African Championships in Nairobi, Okagbare improved her 100m PB to 11.00 seconds, beating American 2009 World Championships bronze medallist Carmelita Jeter in the heats, but eventually finished third in the final in 11.10, at the Aviva London Grand Prix in Crystal Palace on 14 August. She then placed sixth in 11.19 at the Weltklasse Diamond League in Zürich on 19 August and also posted 11.27 at the ISTAF in Berlin on 22 August.
Okagbare represented Africa at the Continental Cup in Split, Croatia, in September 2010, where she placed third in the 100m in 11.14 and sixth in the Long Jump with a leap of 6.34 metres. After that, citing tiredness and a long season, she declined to compete at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India in October, opting instead to undergo surgery to repair a stress fracture to her tibia.
The 23-year-old kicked off her 2011 season at the Samsung Diamond League Meeting in Doha, Qatar, on 6 May, finishing fourth in the 200m in 23.19 and a week later, on 15 May, came third in 100m in 11.23 at the Shanghai Samsung Diamond League in China. She then ran her season's best of 11.08 whilst placing seventh at the Eugene Prefontaine Classic, in Oregon, USA on 4 June. At the adidas Grand Prix in New York on 11 June, she opened her long jump account in bad weather conditions with 5.86m. Two weeks later she jumped a season's best 6.78m to win the All-Nigeria championships in Calabar, Cross Rivers State, and also won the 100m in 11.22.
Okagbare rounded up her preparations for the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, Korea and the 2011 All Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique with a 6.42m leap in the long jump at the Aviva British Grand Prix in Birmingham on 10 July and on 6 August ran 11.25 whilst finishing fifth in the 100m at the Aviva London Grand Prix in Crystal Palace.
Still coming back to form after her surgery, she had a decent outing in Daegu, finishing fifth in 100m (11.12) after failing to make the long jump finals. In Maputo, she took home three medals: Gold medals in her favourite long jump in a windy 6.50m; another as part of the Nigerian women 4x100m relay team and a silver in 100m, also a windy 11.01.
The year 2012 marked a complete transformation in Okagbare's life. Fresh from graduating from University of Texas, El Paso, she faced the difficulty of having to move from her comfort zone and adjust to the demands and rigours of being a full-time professional athlete for the first time.
She eventually made the hard decision to leave the only town she had known since coming over from Nigeria and her coach at UTEP and moved to California to join up with the Nike camp in LA. “I’ve had three coaches in four years. There's been a few changes in my life, but I’ve been able to deal with it,” she says. “John Smith is a very good coach. I’m not saying other coaches I’ve worked with are not good, but I really think we can work together as coach and athlete. I want to get better, that’s my goal. When I went down to see what he does, I was pleased with what I saw.”
That decision was rewarded with instant success and her newly found confidence from training with the likes of World Champion, Carmelita Jeter, showed when she landed on the circuit. She opened her Diamond League season in Doha on 11 May, placing 4th in 100m in 11.01, followed by a 2nd place finish in 11.21 at the Daegu Colorful meeting on 16 May. Three days later, she ran a windy 22.71 for 200m and jumped 6.64m in Shanghai on 19 May. Two solid performances in June, first at the Preclassic in Eugene, where she posted a 22.63 PB in 200m on 2 June and a week later, an 11.10 clocking at the adidas Grand Prix in New York, set her on her way to the Nigerian Olympic Trials, in Calabar, where she won the 100m in 11.12 and set a PB of 6.97m in the long jump.
Even after suffering a shock defeat over 100m to Gabon's Ruddy Zang Milama at the African Championships in Porto-Novo on 28 June, her spirit was not dampened, and she leapt to a Championships Record 6.96m a day later. Her confidence restored, she dipped under 11 seconds twice in July, to record victories at both the London and Monaco Samsung Diamond League meets. First a PB of 10.99 in the heats at Crystal Palace before overhauling a packed field that included reigning World champion Carmelita Jeter with an 11.01 victory in the final. A week later, she lowered her PB further to 10.96 seconds to win the Monaco Samsung Diamond League, taking huge scalps on the way.
As an indication of how far she had come in four years since that blessed day in Beijing, Okagbare now looks forward to London 2012 in a more confident mood. “When I went to my first Olympics, I was young and a bit naive. I was 19 and I got the bronze medal. This year it feels different,” she says. “My recent win in Monaco has boosted my confidence. I think I'm ready to face the world. I'm just going to go out and do my best. "I'm aiming for a top three overall. If I get the gold, I'll take it. Whatever happens I will accept my fate," she added.
100m: 10.96 (2012)
200m: 22.63 (2012)
Long Jump: 6.97 (2012)
Triple Jump: 14.13 (2007)
60m: 7.18 (2010)
200m: 23.52 (2010)
Long Jump: 6.87 (2010)
Triple Jump: 13.64 (2008)
100m/200m: 2008: 23.76; 2009: 11.16/-; 2010: 11.00 (10.98w)/22.71(23.52i); 2011: 11.08/22.94; 2012: 10.96/22.63
Long Jump: 2006: 6.16; 2007: 6.51; 2008: 6.91(6.68i); 2009: 6.73, 2010: 6.88 (6.87i); 2011: 6.78 (6.84w); 2012: 6.97
Triple Jump: 2006: 13.38; 2007: 14.13 (AJR); 2008: 14.07 (13.64i); 2009: 13.59; 2010: (13.55i); 2011: -; 2012: -
2006: 6 q IAAF World Junior Championships (Beijing) (Long Jump) 5.97
2006: 8 q IAAF World Junior Championships (Beijing) (Triple Jump) 12.81
2007 1st Nigeria Track and Field Champs (Lagos) (Long Jump) 6.50
2007 1st Nigeria Track and Field Champs (Lagos) (Triple Jump) 14.13(AJR)
2007 4th All-Africa Games (Algiers) (Triple Jump) 13.77
2007 2nd All-Africa Games (Algiers) (Long Jump) 6.46
2008 2nd NCAA Indoor Championships (Fayetteville, AR) (Long Jump) 6.68i
2008 3rd NCAA Outdoor Championships (Des Moines, IA) (Long Jump) 6.59
2008 2nd NCAA Outdoor Championships (Des Moines, IA) (Triple Jump) 14.01
2008 1st Nigeria Track and Field Champs (Abuja) (Long Jump) 6.86
2008 1st Nigeria Track and Field Champs (Abuja) (Triple Jump) 14.07
2008 3rd Olympic Games (Beijing) (Long Jump) 6.91
2009 1st Nigeria Track and Field Champs (Abuja) (100m) 11.16
2009 1st Nigeria Track and Field Champs (Abuja) (Long Jump) 6.73
2010 1st NCAA Indoor Championships (Fayetteville, AR) (60m) 7.18i
2010 1st NCAA Indoor Championships (Fayetteville, AR) (Long Jump) 6.87i
2010 1st NCAA Outdoor Championships (Eugene, OR) (100m) 10.98w
2010 1st NCAA Outdoor Championships (Eugene, OR) (Long Jump) 6.79
2010 1st Nigeria Track & Field Champs (Calabar) (100m) 11.06
2010 1st Africa Athletics Championships (Nairobi) (100m) 11.03 (CR)
2010 1st Africa Athletics Championships (Nairobi) (Long Jump) 6.62
2010 1st Africa Athletics Championships (Nairobi) (4X100m) 43.45 (CR)
2010 3rd IAAF/VTB Bank Continental Cup (Split) (100m) 11.14
2010 6th IAAF/VTB Bank Continental Cup (Split) Long Jump) 6.34
2011 1st Nigeria Track & Field Champs (Calabar) (100m) 11.22 (11.20 sf)
2011 1st Nigeria Track & Field Champs (Calabar) (Long Jump) 6.78
2011 5th IAAF World Championships (Daegu) (100m) 11.12
2011 q IAAF World Championships (Daegu) (Long Jump) 6.36
2011 2nd All Africa Games (Maputo) (100m) 11.01w
2011 1st All Africa Games (Maputo) Long Jump) 6.50w
2011 1st All Africa Games (Maputo) (4x100m) 43.34
2012 1st Nigeria Track & Field Champs (Calabar) (100m) 11.12
2012 1st Nigeria Track & Field Champs (Calabar) (Long Jump) 6.97
2012 1st African Athletics Champs (Porto-Novo) (Long Jump) 6.96 (CR)
2012 2nd African Athletics Champs (Porto-Novo) (100m) 11.18
Prepared by Yomi Omogbeja for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2010-2012