Nikki Okwelogu came closer than she would have liked to being forced into her summer backup plan.
And while studying abroad in Mexico would have been fun, it doesn’t compare to what the former Clovis West High state track and field champion will experience next month in Rio de Janeiro.
Okwelogu is part of Nigeria’s 78-member Olympic team, competing in the shot put at the Aug. 5-21 Summer Games.
“I’m so excited for this opportunity,” said Okwelogu, who will be a senior at Harvard in the fall. “Being able to say I’m an Olympian for the rest of my life is a crazy thing to think about.”
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Okwelogu needed to surpass the Olympics’ qualifying standard of 17.75 meters to have the opportunity to represent Nigeria, the birthplace of parents Agnes Akabogu and Bernard Okwelogu.
Being able to say I’m an Olympian for the rest of my life is a crazy thing to think about.
Clovis West High alum Nikki Okwelogu, who will compete in the shot put for Team Nigeria at the Rio Games
When she uncorked a career-best 17.66 (57 feet, 11¼ inches) on what was described as a slightly flawed throw to place third at the NCAA Indoors on March 12 in Birmingham, Ala., Harvard throws coach John Ridgway told Okwelogu it was only a matter of time before she reached the Olympics qualifying standard.
But when the outdoor season launched March 18 at the Texas Southern Relays, Okwelogu failed to hit the mark. For the next 10 weeks, Okwelogu kept coming up short.
“I was depressed a lot during those months,” Okwelogu said. “Every time I got my hopes up, it didn’t happen.”
With Okwelogu figuring her Olympic dream wasn’t going to be fulfilled, she began looking into studying in Mexico.
And then, it happened.
Okwelogu unleashed another career-best at the NCAA Outdoors East Regional on May 11 in Jacksonville, Fla.
When her first attempt was measured at 17.91, Okwelogu was stunned.
“I must have done a quadruple take on it,” Okwelogu said. “I saw it landed on the 18-meter line, and I thought that must be wrong. I released it and finished my rotation and watched it, and I was like, ‘No way.’ Even though I knew it was right there, I was surprised because it came on my first throw. It usually takes a couple to get going, but not that day.
“I don’t know if I was in shock or euphoria that everything finally came together. It really is when you least expect it that things fall together.”
Okwelogu still wasn’t sure she was headed to Rio. She said she didn’t receive official notification until three weeks ago.
Nigeria’s bleak financial situation – with growing inflation, a shrinking economy and said to be “technically in recession” by its finance minister – cast into doubt the country’s ability to send athletes to the Olympics.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen, so I tried not to get my hopes too high,” Okwelogu said. “But once I started to get emails asking me what city I’d be flying out of, what my shoe size was and stuff like that, it seemed pretty legit.”
But because of Nigeria’s financial troubles, Okwelogu might be going to Rio alone.
She’s been informed by Nigerian Olympic officials that they will arrange accreditation for personal throws coach Mike Guidry Jr. of Clovis West, but not cover his travel and lodging.
Guidry said he’s seeking financial assistance now, with anyone wishing to donate encouraged to email him at email@example.com.
“I would hate to see her go alone,” Guidry said. “I think she needs the support. It would be a shame not to be there.”
Guidry has been training Okwelogu since she was a high school freshman.
Okwelogu grew into a three-time CIF State meet qualifier – where she was eighth in discus and 15th in the shot put as a sophomore, fourth in the shot and 16th in discus as a junior, and first in discus and fourth in the shot put as a senior – before moving on to become an indoor and outdoor All-American at Harvard.
Okwelogu was third nationally in the shot put during the indoor season and eighth in shot and 10th in discus outdoors.
It will not surprise me if she has a personal-best and surprises some people in a couple of weeks. She’s always done well in bigger competitions.
Clovis West High throws coach Mike Guidry on Okwelogu, the Olympics-bound former Golden Eagles standout he’s trained for seven years
“This is something she set her sights on seven years ago, and it usually takes people at least 10 years to get where she is,” Guidry said. “She’s an example of a lot of hard work and dedication. It was no easy task. There was a lot of heartache and tears along the way. A lot of early mornings and late nights. But it’s the American dream. If you put your work in, you can accomplish your dream.”
Okwelogu said gearing up for a third major event of the year (following the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Championships) and the uncertainty whether Guidry will be by her side has made it difficult to set specific goals for the Olympics. But she plans to make the most of the experience and her time in Rio.
“Obviously making the finals would be the dream and that’s a possibility,” Okwelogu said, “but regardless of the circumstances, I will do my best.”