Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Oh, What a Blessing!

SUPER Eagles coach Stephen Keshi added yet another glittering feather to his cap last Saturday when he successfully led the home-based Super Eagles to qualify for the African Nations Championships for African-based national teams (CHAN) for the first time. Nigeria’s attempt to qualify for the first two editions of the competition failed woefully as our home-based players could not overcome Ghana in 2009 and Niger Republic in 2011 respectively.

Ironically, it was against a much more accomplished opposition (Cote d’Ivoire) that Keshi finally broke the jinx last weekend. Now the home Eagles will be one of the favourites to win the trophy when the third CHAN holds in South Africa next January. Considering that the main Super Eagles won the African Cup of Nations in the same country only last February, “Mandela Country” must feel like a good hunting ground for Keshi and his wards.

Ahead of the clash in Abidjan last Saturday, I had rated the two teams’ chances of qualifying as 50-50. In my reckoning, Nigeria’s 4-1 first leg win, though handsome, was not conclusive because a 3-0 win for the Ivorians would have turned the tide. Indeed the Elephants nearly pulled it off when they stampeded to a 2-0 lead in the first half. But the Eagles rallied to close shop in the second half and stole the ticket 4-3 on aggregate.

By any standard, that was a superb second half performance by our home lads. With their backs to the wall against a tough opponent on an away ground, those second 45 minutes must have been the longest they ever endured. It must have felt like a war front. I salute the gallantry of the home boys. Keshi’s bravery in selecting and blooding them in the main Super Eagles is paying great dividends indeed.

However, the Super Eagles were not really the major heroes of Nigerian sport last weekend. That accolade goes to none other than the new golden girl of Nigerian athletics, BLESSING OKAGBARE, who broke the African women’s 100metres record TWICE  the same day at the IAAF Diamond League event at the Olympic Stadium in London last Saturday.

Okagbare dusted a quality field of rivals on the way to her record and she’s now a hot bet ahead of the World Athletics Championship in Moscow. Coming at a time when President Goodluck Jonathan just gave out handsome cash rewards to our reinstated 4x400metres men’s relay Olympic gold medallists at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, Nigerian athletics is truly shinning at the moment.

At the closing ceremony of last year’s National Sports Festival held in Lagos, I sat in the stands of the Teslim Balogun stadium with former African 100metres women’s record holder Mary Onyali and she was positive that, with good planning, proper training and motivation, it was possible to re-enact the good old days of Nigerian dominance in the world athletics circuit. Okagbare’s ascendancy is probably the best illustration of Onyali’s prediction so far.

The title of Soccertalk this week has been inspired by Blessing Okagbare’s heart-warming achievement.  And I had to personally request Complete Sports editor, Dare Esan, to be my guest writer today because he is currently Nigeria’s number one athletics writer. He is the most appropriate person to write on Okagbare’s breakthrough. I decided to let the best man do the business!

I thank Dare for granting my request and writing the special feature below on our new golden girl. What a blessing Okagbare is to the hitherto battered psyche of Nigerian athletics. Oh, what a refreshing, super, duper Blessing!


A Blessing on the Track


LIKE many Nigerians, I watched Blessing Okagbare race into Nigerian and African history books last Saturday at the Saintsbury  Anniverssary  Games, the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London to commemmorate the 30th Olympic Games held a year ago. Okagbare erased the 14-year old 10.90 seconds Nigerian, nay African, record set by sprint hurdler, Glory Alozie, on June 5, 1999 in La Laguna, Spain with a first ever sub 10.80 seconds run by a Nigerian woman. She first ran 10.86 seconds in the heat before storming to a scorching 10.79 seconds to set two African records in one day.

The performance has made her only the 16th woman ever to break the 10.80 seconds barrier in the history of the event. I am sure many Nigerians will be wondering what happened to the 10.84 seconds run by Atlanta Olympics long jump gold medal winner, Chioma Ajunwa.  Ajunwa's time, achieved on April 11, 1992 in Lagos, was not officially ratified by the IAAF following the positive dope test returned by the policewoman a few months later.

Okagbare's feat in London has made her one of the firm favourites for a podium appearance at the 14th IAAF World Athletics Championships next month in Moscow, Russia. I want to agree with many athletics buffs that the University of Texas in El Paso, USA graduate looks good for the ultimate medal in Moscow which will make her the first Nigerian, man or woman, to win an IAAF World Outdoor Championships title. The closest we came was in Rome, Italy 26 years ago when Innocent Egbunnike raced to a silver medal finish in the 400 metres.

Okagbare’s feat may come not only in the 100m where she is the second fastest woman so far in 2013 behind Jamaica's Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. Okagbare has also been phenomenal in the 200m and the long jump where she has set new personal bests too.

In the 200m she holds a personal best of 22.31 seconds, the fastest time run by an African since Falilat Ogunkoya ran 22.25 seconds in Johannesburg, South Africa at the IAAF World Cup in 1998. And in the long jump, Okagbare’s 7.00m leap at the Monaco IAAF Diamond league meeting on July 19 is also a personal best and the second best jump since Ajunwa jumped 7.01m in Athens, Greece at the 6th IAAF World Championships.

Okagbare is starting to live up to the expectation of her coaches and that of mine. Two years ago she said she wanted to achieve milestones no other Nigerian,  and by extension,  African, has ever achieved by becoming the best there ever is and ever will be. “I want to be the best. My goal is to be the best in the world,” she said to me on the eve of the 16th African Championships in Athletics held in Nairobi, Kenya. Bob Kittens, her former head coach at University of Texas in El Paso, predicted that the Sapele-born lady would be a strong force to reckon with in global athletics. Kittens recalled Okagbare was just one of those average performers when he offered her  a schorlarship to study in the USA on the recommendation of his Nigerian contact, coach Tony Osheku. Then she had just won a long jump silver medal in Algiers at the All Africa Games. She had set a new 14.13m Nigeria triple jump record about two months earlier. It was on the basis of these performances that she was recruited by Kittens.

“She wasn't that good a sprinter when she came here. She wasn't anything spectacular.” And now? “Whatever Marion Jones did, she can do,” Kittens said, comparing Okagbare to the woman who won five medals at the 2000 Olympics. “She's one of a kind. They threw away the mold when they made her.  She's right there at the top of University of Texas in El Paso greats,” Kittens added after Okagbare won a 60m/100m and long jump double at the 2010 National Collegiate of Athletics Association  (NCAA) indoor and outdoor championships. In fact, Kittens still remembers the exact words of Osheku when he was recommending Okagbare.

“I knew nothing except that she was a good triple and long jumper,” Kittens said.

More from Kittens: “Tony said, ‘Coach, Blessing’s going to make you smile.’ I didn’t understand what he was telling me, but he was right.”

Okagbare has not only make Kitchens and University of Texas in El Paso happy, she has also brought back smiles to the faces of Nigerians who believed Mary Onyali had taken with her into retirement the secret of sprinting that made her Africa’s queen of the track. It is crystal clear now that Okagbare's impressive and record-breaking performances since the start of the 2013 track and field outdoor season have not been by happenstance. But many will want to know how the transformation from being an above average athlete to an exceptional one has come about.

I want to believe the best thing that has happened to Okagbare came last season when her kits sponsors, NIKE had her  move from her training base in El Paso, where she trained with University of Texas in El Paso's Leon Settle, to work with renowned sprint coach  John Smith and his stable of NIKE sprinters.

Dealing with that adjustment, she managed eighth position in the world in the 100m at the 2012 Olympics. This year, and with that transition complete, she's much improved. Okagbare concurred in an interview with Bret Bloomquist of El Paso Times early in the outdoor season that things have been very different after moving to Smith's camp.

"After I switched coaches, every thing we were doing was new to me," Okagbare said. "It was hard at first. I was used to a  system, then it changed. Workouts are totally different. I do more strength, more endurance. I'm getting my strength to my potential. I'm doing more (work) than I expected to do. Last year, it was all very new; my body was a little tired. This year is different."

Since the change of coaches, Okagbare has continued to soar in performance and ratings. Like Kittens,Smith acknowledged the Nigerian has immense potentials that have not been fully tapped. Smith said Okagbare's improvement is natural for several  reasons. "We've had a year together, a year to battle, a year to grow a little more," Smith said. “I don't know what she did before, she's a year older as well, but there's a method to how I coach. I believe in being extremely fit. You have to exemplify hard work.”

Smith has seen Okagbare take that on. “With her, (her potential) is unlimited,” Smith said. “She has the size, she has the strength, she has the tenacity and she has good training partners. She doesn't back away from work.

She does things she doesn't like to do or hasn't been exposed to. I expose her to it. The light bulb goes off and she's an extremely bright young lady: Last year, it was tough on all of us. She came in and we had to get right at it. Neither one of us knew each other. Now, we do. She's piecing it together, walking down that path,” Smith said.

With this and the huge support she is getting from the Delta state government as well as Athletic Federation of Nigeria  president, Evangelist Solomon Ogba, I am hopeful that Blessing will prove to be more than a mere blessing to Nigeria.She will have the world at her feet and put Nigeria right there at the top of the sprinting world. Yes, let’s all celebrate this Blessing that God has given our country. But there’s more to come from the new African queen of sprints.

WOMEN'S 100M ALL-TIME TOP LIST

1.10.49    Florence Griffith-Joyner    USA
2.10.64    Carmelita Jeter     USA
3.10.65A      Marion Jones        USA
4.10.70    Shelley Ann Fraser-Pryce    JAM
5.10.73     Christine Arron    FRA
6.10.74     Merlene Ottey    JAM
7.10.75     Kerron Stewart    JAM
8.10.76     Evelyn Ashford    USA
9.10.76    Veronica Campbell-Brown    JAM
10.10.77     Irina Privalova    RUS
11.10.77     Ivet Lalova         BUL
12.10.78A     Dawn Sowell         USA
13.10.78        Torri Edwards    USA
14.10.79         Li Xuemei        CHN
15.10.79        Inger Miller        USA
16.10.79         Blessing Okagbare    NGR

2 comments:

  1. Oga Mumini,
    I believe Okagbare should have been at the podium at London 2012.
    I watched her run-up to the final, and observed her body language spoke volumes about Self-Doubt.
    Maybe it was the lack of adequate support structure then, which her new training regimen seems to be addressing.
    At London 2012, Okagbare's Self-Doubt seemed to hamper her during the Drive Phase (Start - 30metres), so by the time she attained Stride Phase (30metres - 60metres), she was so far behind her rivals to catch them before they crossed the finish line.
    Okagbare's Stride Phase is world-class; if she is in the competition after the Drive Phase, she has the weapons to blow away the Shelley Ann Fraser-Pryces and Cameleter Jeters.
    Why? Her world-class Stride Phase is a product of her physique: long limbs, ample musculature.
    Okagbare needs a dose of Self-Belief to be world champion in Moscow.
    Congrats to Keshi!

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