It’s not just the gold medallists who gain valuable experience from competing at the IAAF World U20 Championships. Many athletes who exit the championships in the heats or qualifying rounds go on to become stars of the sport in their senior years.
Nigerian sprinter-long-jumper Blessing Okagbare is one such example. In the first part of a new series looking at athletes’ formative experiences at past World U20 Championships, the world and Olympic medallist casts her mind back to the 2006 edition in Beijing and the significance it had on her career.
A talented long and triple jumper, Okagbare secured selection for the 2006 World U20 Championships in Beijing only a few weeks ahead of the event. It came as a shock to the then 17-year-old from the city of Sapele.
“I was told (about selection) when my parents were home,” she recalls. “I didn’t know much about World Juniors (U20s) and I was simply told I needed to travel to the meet. I took my passport and then spent a week in Lagos before flying out to China.”
Flying for the first time proved an overwhelming experience.
“I was a very naïve, young girl at the time,” she admits. “I was happy to be travelling, but I had a hard time settling. I wanted to see everything on the plane to make sure I could tell everybody back home what I saw. I remember, though, it was a long flight. I got very cold on the plane and became very sick.
“After I landed, I got a fever and started vomiting. Thankfully, I went to the doctor and was given medication. I was fine again after a couple of days.”
A little weakened from her untimely illness, she was nonetheless ready to compete in the triple jump qualification, the first of her two events. She did, however, face a bigger issue: her coach was unable to attend the competition.
“I only had the federation secretary to help me out,” she says. “There was nobody to check or make adjustments in the lead-up or during the competition.”
Going into the triple jump with a best of 13.38m, she sadly underperformed in qualification, registering a best effort of 12.81m for 16th overall. Okagbare missed out on a spot in the final by 16 centimetres, but had she reproduced her lifetime best, she would have advanced in third.
“I wanted to just have fun and try my best, but on that day, my best did not cut it,” she says. “I remember crying at the end of the competition. I felt bad I did not make the final, because I thought I am better than that (12.81m).”
Two days later, the long jump qualification served up more disappointment as she leapt a best of 5.97m, 19 centimetres shy of her PB. She finished 17th overall and again missed out on the final.
“I jumped way behind the board with all my jumps,” she says. “I didn’t have a coach with me to help make the adjustments.”
Despite the below-par performance at the 2006 World U20 Championships, Okagbare has carried her experiences of that competition into her subsequent career.
She returned to the Chinese capital two years later for the Olympic Games. Still a teenager and relatively unknown, Okagbare surprised many of her opponents in the long jump to take the silver medal.
She has gone on to become a regular finalist in the 100m, 200m and long jump at global and continental championships, picking up numerous medals along the way.
“I may not have been able to show what I could do (in Beijing) but it meant a lot to me at such a young age to represent my country,” she adds. “Competing on that stage lit a passion in me that has driven me for the rest of my career. I recall how the fans cheered for everybody. I felt special.
“Back then, I felt intimidated by some of the athletes and their coaches. The fact that they could talk back and forth to their coaches was, like, wow! But even though I had no coach, it taught me to be more independent and take care of things on my own in future competitions.”
To the athletes set to compete at the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018, Okagbare has some simple but key advice.
“An athlete’s personality goes a long way towards determining whatever you do in life,” she says. “Regardless of what happens at World U20s, this is not going to be the end. It’s your personality and character that will stay with you and is of the greatest importance.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF