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‘My Journey To The Olympics And World U-20 Podium’ –Nse Uko

‘My Journey To The Olympics And World U-20 Podium’ –Nse Uko

At 17, Imaobong Nse Uko’s dream of representing Nigeria became a reality at the biggest sporting stage, the Olympics.

A little known just five years ago, Nse Uko stormed into national consciousness in December 2018 when, as a 14 year old she became the National Sports Festival champion in the 400m, an event that has not only fetched Nigeria a medal at the Olympics but one in which two Nigerian athletes were ranked one and two in the world in 1998!.

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The country has been starved of world class quartermilers since Falilat Ogunkoya who won two medals at the 1996 Olympics exited the stage.

Folashade Abugan, Doris Jacob, Regina George, Patience Okon-George came and made their mark albeit the marks were way below the standard set by Ogunkoya, Fatimah Yusuf and Charity Opara, the only trio to run a sub-50 seconds in the event.

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Favour Ofili also emerged like a bolt out of the blues two years ago but she is yet to join the 50 seconds club.

None of the athletes had an incredible entry into the Nigerian 400m space like Nse Uko did in 2018. She began as a 60.88 seconds runner at the National U-20 trials in June 2018 in Usoro and improved geometrically to win the National Youth Games in Ilorin as a starry eyed 14 year old.

She followed that up by stepping up into the arena made for the best in Nigeria, the National Sports Festival and announced her arrival as the new Nigerian queen of the quartermile, setting a new 52.36 seconds personal best in the process.The time moved her above Alice Nwosu (52.37) and into the 16th spot on the Nigerian all-time U20 list.

Three years later, Nse Uko retained her 400m National Sports Festival title in Benin City in a new 51.70 seconds lifetime best.The time was also the fastest time in the world by an U-18 athlete at the time. Albeit the time was nowhere near the Tokyo 2020 Olympics entry standard of 51.35 seconds.

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Nse Uko realised her dream of competing at the biggest sporting fiesta in the world as a member of Nigeria’s 4x400m mixed relay team.

She ran the first leg at the Yaba College of Technology Sports Complex in Lagos where the team ran 3:14.09 to set a new Nigeria and African record to seal qualification for the Olympics.

”It’s a dream come true,’ said the innocent-looking and supremely talented athlete after making the team to the quadrennial event.

Her Olympic dream was finally fulfilled on Friday July 30, 2021 when she ran the second leg as the team set a new 3:13.60 African record to place seventh in the first of two semifinal heats.
Gabriel Okon, Nse Uko’s coach says the 17 year old is just scratching the surface of what she is going to achieve in track and field.

“She is a very talented athlete and one destined for the top,” said Okon after the race in Tokyo.

True to his prediction, Nse Uko indeed proved she is truly destined for the top when she won three gold medals at the World Athletics U-20 Championships in Nairobi, Kenya, the most by any Nigerian athlete in the history of the Championships. She picked two relay gold and an individual 400m title to become the fourth Nigerian woman to win gold in the event.

Two out of the three athletes before her later became Olympic medallists and Nse Uko is determined to become the third when the Olympic train makes its 33rd stop in Paris, France in 2024.

”My immediate target is to continue with my education (she will be going to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, USA on track scholarship) and also continue with my development in athletics,” said Nse Uko.

The 17 year old never thought she could be where she is today about four years ago when she was discovered by one of her teachers, Mrs Olaitan.

“I didn’t even imagine I would be competing at the Olympics so soon. I feel great. I am so excited that everything has gone so smoothly.I am grateful to God for what I have been able to achieve at such a little time,” Nse Uko said and recounted how her journey to stardom began.

”It all started in my school – at my school’s inter-house sports. Our Games mistress who was also our English and Literature in English teacher, Mrs Olaitan was impressed with my performance and decided to make me realise my dream. This was also at the time we had the Secondary School Games in lbeno.

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“She took me to coach Effiong Ibok who was a football coach. Coach Effiong handed me over to one of his athletes, Ambitious Sule who was a 800/1500m athlete. It was Sule that drew up programmes for me and others for training until we went for a competition in Uyo.

“I represented our local government, lbeno local Govternment and from there I was selected to represent Akwa Ibom at the 2017 Youth Games in Ilorin albeit I didn’t compete because I was told I was too young to compete at the time. The exposure however helped me as I was able to compete the following year at the same competition and the same venue. I won three gold medals at the event.

“On our return to Uyo after the National Youth Games, the Secretary of Akwa Ibom Athletics Association came to my parents in lbeno to seek permission to take me under her wings in Uyo to continue with my education and training. It was impossible for me to be coming from lbeno to Uyo everyday for training and there was no training facility in Ibeno, we were only training at the beach,” said Nse Uko.

Nse Uko recalls she started training with coach Gabriel Essien (a.k.a Phidipidis) when she first got to Uyo in 2018 before Coach Dan Umoette took over upon his return from a coaching course in Lagos.

“It was from here Olympian Gabriel Okon who was a national coach came into the picture. Coach Okon started sending training programmes for me and a few others like Esther Okon and Nsikak Francis with coach Umoette supervising our training.”

Nse Uko is not only grateful to coach Okon whose programme has developed her into a better athlete but also to Mrs Olaitan who made sure her talent did not go to waste and coach Ibok who agreed to take her under his wings following Mrs Olaitan’s request.

“I am also grateful to Mrs Janet Bassey (Secretary of Akwa Ibom Athletics Association) who has been my parent, guardian and adviser since I moved in with her in 2018 and coaches Phidipidis and Umoette who also played huge roles in my development, so far,” said the reigning World U-20 400m champion.

Nigerians will be hoping Nse Uko can become the next world class quartermiler from Nigeria after the trio of Ogunkoya, Yusuf and Opara and the 17 year old did not mince words in declaring her mission in the event.

“I want to become the fourth Nigerian to break 50 seconds in the 400m and like those before me make it to the podium at the Olympics.”

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