BLESSING OKAGBARE, recently crowned Commonwealth 100m & 200m Champion and African 100m Champion & Record Holder, speaks EXCLUSIVELY to MAKING OF CHAMPIONS on her career, personal life and on Nigerian Athletics! In this first part of this 3-part interview series recorded in Morocco during the African Championships, she speaks on her career to date and on chasing even more medals and records!
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.
Tune in later this week for the Part II of this Exclusive Interview with Blessing Okagbare, where she speaks on her upcoming wedding, on having kids, and on finding her voice on Social Media – stay tuned!
Blessing winning 100m GOLD at Marrakech 2014 in a new African Championship Record of 11.00 seconds flat!