–Recently crowned Commonwealth 100m & 200m Champion and African 100m Champion & Record Holder,Blessing Okagbare speaks EXCLUSIVELY to MAKING OF CHAMPIONS on her career, personal life and on Nigerian Athletics…
You started off as a Long & Triple Jumper – how and when did you get your big break in your career?
Well I would say it started from my moving to the States. That was when it really started happening because I would say that was one of the best and greatest decisions I have made in my life, because if I had been in Nigeria, honestly I don’t know where I would have been right now. It actually started in 2008 at 19 when I won a bronze medal in Beijing. Then I didn’t know what it was but as the years progressed I got more education as regards to Track & Field and I figured that I had much more talent than what I was seeing so I just took it up from there.
So would you say your bronze medal kind of helped your move to the US, and getting a scholarship?
No I actually got the bronze medal after I arrived the States. That was my first year in college then.
When did you start sprinting, and when did you know that you had the potential to become a champion sprinter?
Usually we do a lot of running when we are jumping and my coach was like ‘You have a lot of speed to put on the track’ and I was like no at first. So it was actually in 2009 when he said ‘We are going to this meet and you are going to jump and do the sprints’ and I was like ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I just want you to sprint, take a break from jumping’. I was like ‘Okay, that’s fine, I’m up for it’ so I actually did and surprised myself with 11.22s, so that was it! That was how it started. Not every sprinter would just run 11.22s on their first race so for a jumper to do that, it means you’ve got the talent so I stuck to it.
What is the greatest moment in your career so far?
I would actually say the Commonwealth Games right now. It’s really new and fresh though but I think it was one of the competitions I really prepared for and everything was just in place. I was so relaxed but extremely focused, and executed much better than I have ever done in my career and it paid off.
What about when you broke the 100m African Record?
I was so happy when I won that race, just because of how fast I ran. I wasn’t worried about the African record. I was just really happy because I wasn’t expecting the race to be that fast. I was like ‘What!’ people were like ‘You’re way better than that, you just don’t know it.’
Which medal that you’ve won means the most to you?
I will say the World Championships.
Which of the two – the Silver in the Long Jump or Bronze in the 200m?
The Bronze in the 200m
Why that one in particular?
Because there is more competition in that one versus the Long Jump. It’s the biggest stage.
You’ve come a long way since the 1st Bronze in Beijing, and it took you 5 more years to get another global medal – the two medals at the World Championships.
What would you say to Nigerians whom always expect instant success, and to those that wrote you off after London 2012?
Well I won’t blame them. I’m not criticizing them it’s just that we have less education when it comes to sports, and Track & Field and how it goes. I really want them to look more into this whole aspect of sports. I also want them to know that there is no magic in sports, as much as we the athletes want to go there and win, but there is always somebody who is working harder than you are, and more is being invested in that person than in you. It’s not like you don’t have the talent, you do have the talent but there is so much that makes an individual a champ. It starts from the way you eat or sleep, the people you surround yourself with, the people that educate you, the people that sponsor you, the people that tell you that you can do it, versus Nigerians, the majority of whom just criticize. They don’t have any education regarding what athletes go through. It got a little bit to me after 2012; a lot of people wrote me off but the thing is I believe God has blessed me so much more than what people just see for me to give up my career so easily. I knew that I had just started so I just kept my faith.
What are your hopes and dreams for the rest of your career?
Actually I want to do way better than I have done right now, like extremely better. I’m talking about attempting world records and putting myself in the gold medal position and I actually want to be one of the best sprinters to end up being in track and field…Sprinter slash Jumper! (she laughs).
On that note how much lower do you think you can take the 100m African Record?
I’m actually looking at a 10.5; 10.58. That’s what I’m going to work towards, which is not going to be easy.
It sounds like 9.58, like Usain Bolt?
Well, this is Blessing Okagbare. Like I said at the Commonwealth Games, I’m going to work twice as hard as I have ever worked. Even a 10.7 is not an easy race.
I’m telling you, but that is actually my goal. I’m looking at a 10.5 in future because I’m still young and getting to my peak. Usually the peak should be between 27 and 28 and I’m 25 right now so as long as I stay healthy, I am looking at 10.5, 21.6 in the 200m, and 7.50 in the long jump. I’ve not been training for the jumps but anytime I go out there I still jump 7m so I have the talent to jump over that.
Well you’ve already answered our next question because for a long time a lot of people, including ourselves, have seen the 200m as possibly your best event.
How soon do you see yourself breaking Mary Onyali’s African Record of 22.07s? When do you think you can go under 22?
I’m actually looking at it this year, with good conditions. I was trying to attempt it in Glasgow but the way they had that schedule (the semis and final on the same evening) was completely off for me. First of all the weather was horrible; it was too cold and damp so I didn’t want to push it. The semi-final was very easy for me so I was like ‘let me do it’ but after that, with the rain and everything, my coach said ‘don’t push it’. And you want to listen to the person that coaches you because they have been there before. They know the pros and cons of everything you do, so he said ‘don’t push it, just go there and win’ and that was what we did. I’m still trying to recover from the Commonwealth Games. I have still Brussels (Diamond League) so I’m hoping to run faster there. Hopefully I can attempt the 200.
Now, you’re engaged to be married. So first of all congratulations!
Do you have a wedding date yet, and will you be planning to start a family soon? How do you plan to weigh that up with your career aspirations?
Actually it’s sometime in November and I’m looking forward to it. But I just want to get the wedding over with. I mean when I get married I become Mrs someone, I would have a husband but then talking about a family and kids is not really in the schedule for right now. I already have so much planned out for the near future and I really want to achieve that. That’s why I just believe that when I can do this and put this in place, then the rest will follow.
So maybe kids after the next Olympics…?
Well we’ll see about that.
Your fiancé is an ex-Super Eagles player, Igho Otegheri. Have you discussed whether your children will be footballers or sprinters?
(She laughs) Oh we always argue about that. He would be like ‘he would play soccer’ and I would be like ‘Play what? My son is not playing soccer. He can play basketball. I wouldn’t want the girl to be in Track but the thing is when they are blessed with the talent, there’s not much we can do but support them.
I would really want to support my kids but I don’t want any of them to be in Track & Field.
With the two of you it seems you’re going to have some pretty talented kids….
They can just do other sports – a sport that can make them some money though!
So is the Long Jump still your favourite event?
Yes, it is!
What are the chances that you will combine all 3 events – the 100m, 200m and Long Jump at the next World Champs and Olympics?
I will say 70/30 because the schedule is always off, and the long jump exerts more strength on your body, that’s the truth. I worked really really hard but there is something about this whole body. Your mental state can be fine but when the body has shut down, it has shut down. There is nothing you can do than give it the rest that it deserves. I don’t know if the schedule is going to permit me to attempt the triple that I did last year but I would really want to do it, trust me.
Do you think there is a case for you asking them to make the schedule work in your favour?
They did it for Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis in the 90s…
They did, so we’ll see how it goes. It’s all politics! (she laughs)
How do you feel about Nigerian athletics today? There was a time we used to win a lot of medals on the global stage but now it seems like you are our only individual Olympic medal hope. Do you feel the weight of the whole nation on your shoulders?
No, I used to but like I said I put my priorities straight. If the people who are out there can’t do much to support the sport, this is my career. I have so much passion for what I do, I love Track & Field. I want to enjoy every moment of it. At the same time this is where I earn my living and take care of my family and I have to take care of it. I can’t wait for them; I can’t sit down and expect them to want to do something for me, so that is the difference between the people that are succeeding and those that are not. So if you keep waiting for these people, trust me you are going to be way behind.
Do you think that Track & Field in Nigeria can be revived to rival the likes of USA and Jamaica on the world stage?
No, I don’t think so. I’m not cursing them but it’s going to be really hard, it’s going to be extremely hard. Right now they are doing a lot of recruiting versus building on what they have – it doesn’t make any sense to me, you know, it doesn’t.
So how can we make that revolution in Track & Field happen?
I don’t know, a lot of things have been said in the past but it doesn’t look like they are going to change. They will keeping making the same mistakes and the government will keep changing and new people come. Some people who have no clue about sports will sit there as ministers and so on. First of all you need to find someone who has passion for this game, that knows the sport, that knows what it means to break a world record. Some people don’t even know what a
world record or African championship record means. You need people who are educated about the sport. That is the way you can get athletes to do the best.
Athletes that you are supposed to pay training grants in November, you then give them in April when it’s no longer relevant. They will just use it for shopping. You can’t give me that kind of money now, I will just go to the mall! They are always doing things at the last minute. That is one of the things they need to change because it is not taking us anywhere. It is just slowing us down.
How would you like to give back to Nigeria, and play a role in reviving the sport across the nation?
I’m trying to set up my foundation. I’m still working on that but I have to make sure that I have people that I can actually trust because I don’t really stay in Nigeria, so I need people that I can trust to stand there when you need them. I still have so much going on but I want to give back to my community, my country and fans. I’m setting up my foundation to help young kids coming up in any way I can – probably put them through school, maybe up to college. It will be a great thing so I’m looking forward to that.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak exclusively to MAKING OF CHAMPIONS – we wish you all the best for the future!
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