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Feature13 Jan 2022

From underdog to champion in Nairobi, Onwuzurike sets his sights on the big stage


Udodi Onwuzurike wins the 200m at the World Athletics U20 Championships Nairobi 21 (© Roger Sedres)

All eyes will be on Udodi Onwuzurike when he steps out to compete at the University of Washington this weekend in his first race of 2022.

Because quite unlike how the ‘underdog’ tag worked in his favour at the World U20 Championships in Nairobi where he wasn’t considered much of a threat until he stunned the pre-event favourites to strike gold in the 200m, there will be no hiding place for the 18-year-old as he commences his collegiate career with the Stanford Cardinal.

Indeed, the US-based Nigerian sprinter admits that his life has changed since winning a global title. Getting to compete for Stanford University is an opportunity Onwuzurike considers an offshoot of his spectacular performance in Nairobi where he clocked an impressive 20.21 to win ahead of Botswana’s 100m champion Letsile Tebogo and South Africa’s Sinesipho Dambile.

Not only was Onwuzurike’s winning time a Nigerian U20 record, it’s also inside the entry standard for the World Athletics Championships Oregon22.

His feat made him the first Nigerian in World U20 Championships history to win 200m gold since 1996 when Francis Obikwelu won the sprint double, and the second fastest Nigerian over the distance in 2021, only behind former NCAA champion Divine Oduduru.

“Definitely my life has changed in a significant way since winning the world U20 title in Nairobi,” said the economics major. “Before, I would never have walked and someone there would have recognised me or seen me the on the track or seen me at worlds or somewhere or on social media. All these other people who are in track have noticed me so I will say my life has changed significantly enough in the track world.

“Also, just being on campus and being able to come to Stanford is a great feeling, because if I hadn’t been able to run those good times, I would not have been able to come to a school like this, so it really changed my life a lot.”

Competing in the NCAA circuit has been one of Onwuzurike’s lifelong dreams. Having gained valuable experience from his time at high school where he shattered several records, the Brother Rice High School alumnus believes he is somewhat prepared for the new challenge.

“I started running track almost recreationally at fifth or sixth grade, but coming into my freshman, sophomore year of high school is when I wanted to seek a collegiate level of track and take it more seriously,” he explains. “I would say high school sort of prepared me, gave me time management and discipline but I need to get a little used to the whole collegiate system.

“I had a lot of success in high school but I’m very excited for what the collegiate system holds for me, and I feel like I can really do well. There’s actually a little pressure for me to perform as the first Stanford-affiliated man and individual to win a world U20 track title, but I don’t mind; I’m just happy to be here and I’m excited to run.”

With the stiff level of competition in the NCAA, Onwuzurike believes the lessons learned from his outing in Nairobi last summer will go a long way in shaping his future.

“Looking back at that experience, I feel it has definitely boosted my confidence a lot,” he says. “Going to Nairobi and not even knowing I was capable of all that or being able to make it to this level of track, it certainly boosts my confidence. I think it also gave me a lot of experience because now I’m going into every race, just focusing on my lane and my own space knowing that once I put my mind to it, I’m capable of obtaining it.”

The Michigan native is anticipating an exciting competition at the World Championships in Oregon at the renovated Hayward Field. But his first experience of the venue will be at the outdoor NCAA Championships.

“Oregon has a good track and by the World Championships, I would have raced at Oregon multiple times since the NCAA Championships are being held in Oregon,” he says. “It will be something special so I’m really looking forward to it. I’m definitely taking things one day at a time but I’m hoping to make the final and see what I can do.”

And while many may feel that making the final is quite a tall order for Onwuzurike, he believes he has all it takes to make a statement this year, especially having clocked a wind-aided 20.13 (2.3m/s) in the semifinals in Nairobi, narrowly missing the championship record in the process.

“I definitely see myself doing 19 seconds this year,” says Onwuzurike, who has a 100m PB of 10.23. “My biggest target for this season will probably be running under 20 seconds in the 200m and then trying to do a sub-10 in the 100m and obviously just trying to race at the national (NCAA) championships. Winning the NCAA title has always been the goal.”

Onwuzurike, who turns 19 at the end of January, will be eligible to defend his title at the World Athletics U20 Championships Cali 22 later this year. But beyond the US collegiate season, he is still unsure of how his season will shape up.

“I’d like to compete at the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships in Oregon,” he says. “And if I do go to the World U20 Championships, I’m just going to go with the same mentality I went with the last time; maybe not the underdog this time around but just focusing on myself, knowing what I’m capable of and going out there and performing.”

Yemi Olus for World Athletics

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