This announcement was due to the outstanding performance of the Nigerian team at the Championships where the juniors finished third in the overall medal table with 4 gold and 3 bronze medals, the best result for Nigeria at any world championships in athletics.
A few months after Nairobi, it was no surprise that most of those U-20 athletes were awarded US college scholarships to combine their education and sports careers. One of those universities is Baylor University.
A perfect combination
In January 2022, Baylor University signed three local Nigerian athletes for the first time in their university history, right after the junior championships in Nairobi. They are Nnamdi Chinecherem, Ezekiel Nathaniel and Imaobong Uko.
The trio made their presence known immediately, as Nathaniel’s brilliant highlight this year was winning the Big12 Championship 400m hurdles title, clocking a staggering time of 48.42s, which broke the school record (SR) and the Henry Amike’s long-standing record. Nigerian (NR) record set in 1987.
Interestingly, Chinecherem also won the Big12 Championship title, crushing Pius Bazighe’s long-standing javelin NR of 81.08m set in 1999, with a new 81.22m, thus becoming only the second Nigerian thrower in history for above the 80 m mark.
Uko was not left out of the equation, as her massive personal record (PB) of 51.24 qualified her for the World Championships in Oregon. She was also part of the school’s 4x400m relay quartet, running an SR while winning the Big12 Championship.
Their success in the first season competing for Baylor is highly admirable, an indication to the respective parties that they are fit for each other’s progress.
A master class in relationships
In an exclusive interview with Baylor Director of Athletics Michael Ford about the privilege of working with these athletes, Ford spoke about how pleased he has been with the athletes.
“I’ve been very pleased with all of them,” he told Pulse Sports. “They are great student-athletes and have quickly adjusted to being in the US and at our university.”
When asked about the university’s recruiting process and how they know the right athletes who will fit easily into their program, he credited his assistant coaches for his recruiting success.
“I can’t take credit for that. Coach Chak, our throwing coach, and Coach Dalton, the hurdle coach, helped me through the sprints and recruited them. Of course, their athletic talents were key, but their Christian values they helped too.
As a coach, of course, I look at brands and times”. he added he. But I also look at how they perform in big competitions. Also, academics are important. At Baylor, we are a family that wants recruits and parents to feel that we are caring for them on and off the track.”
Ford’s admiration for the trio is obvious and he believes there is still more they can offer under Baylor’s tutelage. “I think the sky is the limit for all three. I think the key is to stay healthy, continue to coach and work on the little things to get better.”
Meanwhile, Uko spoke about his first year at Baylor and his relationship with his compatriots.
“As the saying goes, there is no place like home. And being in a completely different place than you, having one or two people from your place feels good because only they can understand how you feel. We talk to each other a lot, solving things together; we are like a family to each other.
The 2021 junior world champion in the 400m spoke about her experience as a student-athlete in college and her relationship with her coaches.
“Baylor is a good school when it comes to education, so I thought it would be the best place to get my degree. They have a good training program that helps me in my athletic career. I have a good relationship with my coaches here, which guarantees my success,” said Uko.
The pitcher shares the same sentiments about his coach, Chak. "It’s more like father and son here. We bond well. He understands me and my body well to give me the right training program that I need”.
Chinecherem started throwing the javelin in 2018, but it wasn’t until 2019 that he became a national sensation after defeating National Champion Samuel Kufre twice. He went on to win the African Junior Championship title, throwing a brilliant PB and African U18/U20 Record of 74.71m, and later that year the Bronze medal at the African Games.
Having had a quiet 2020 season due to Covid-19 restrictions; the 20-year-old returned to the World Junior Championships in Nairobi, throwing a world-leading junior best of 78.02m in the first round, but sadly settled for Bronze in the final with a throw of 74.48m.
His performances at the junior level and the NCAA this year have brought more international attention to the sport in Nigeria. He attributed his stay at the javelin throw to the impact it had on his family.
“My people back home have always supported me. They saw the potential more than anyone else. They are my pillar and have always been there for me in my fights. When I needed money to go to competitions, they were always there, especially my dad and my mom. They’re the reasons I didn’t quit when the wave of the game was wild for me.”
On changing the image of the sport in the country, Chinecherem said that he affirms that he is living his purpose on earth.
“There are so many rare raw talents back home like mine, it makes me feel like I never made the wrong decision and am in the right part of my life,” the Javelin sensation concluded.
Nathaniel was born into a family of runners. His older brother Samson is the reigning National Sports Festival (NSF) 400m champion and the country’s top men’s quarter horse while older sister Glory is a former Nigerian 400mH champion, Olympian and current NSF bronze medalist.
His athletic journey began in late 2019, when his brothers’ coach came to his house and discussed Nathaniel’s chances of being a good athlete.
“I didn’t feel like running at first.” At some point, when the coach came to our house, he said: hey, what are you doing? You have to come to the stadium and try to run,” he said. Nathaniel said.
“When I went to the stadium, he put me in the 100m and I ran a 14s. That was so annoying.” He laughed. “So I went home and said I’m not going to do this.
“At the end of 2019, I went to the stadium again, and he saw me and said, ‘Do you want to run again?’ Reluctantly, I said let me try it. When I started running, he told me he thinks I don’t have a lot of speed, but I have a lot of stamina, so he put me in the 800m. At the end of the day, he decided I could probably run the 400m hurdles Since I started running the 400m hurdles I liked it. But I didn’t start proper training until 2020.”
Little did Nathaniel realize he was going to be at a US university just a few months after Nairobi, where he reached the final and finished fifth with a PB of 49s. He dropped his PB in all of his runs throughout the rounds, having gone to Nairobi with a PB of 51, and what’s more interesting is the fact that it was his first time outside of Nigeria.
He narrated how he received a call from one of Baylor’s coaches when he was returning to Nigeria. “I didn’t expect to travel this year, I didn’t know that I would be running 49 in the Junior World Championships.” So when I came back I got a message saying we want you to join us. I thought it was a blessing, so I packed my things and got ready to move. I did not expect.”
The 19-year-old said the adjustment to life at Baylor was very easy, as the coaches don’t put too much pressure on new athletes and just want to continue the training program that incoming athletes have been working on.
“When you get there, they ask you what you’ve been up to, so it’s not like they push their schedules on you. They program the program that suits your body, and everything went the way I wanted, although we are still working towards great things. Everyone works with me, including the medical team, so it’s been good.” he said.
His relationship with his fellow Nigerian athletes at Baylor is based on a mutual understanding.
“We motivate ourselves a lot, we get closer to ourselves, it’s very good. It’s not that they treat us differently, we’re just like everyone else. They don’t make us feel like we are far from home. At Baylor they treat everyone like family.”
There is no doubt that Baylor’s track and field recruiting team found a gold mine in signing these young Nigerians. The positive results they have achieved in their freshman seasons are indications of the bright future that awaits them.
Considering how young they are and the progress they are capable of under the coaches tutelage, Nigeria will benefit in the long run as they are potential medalists at major international championships.
The trio have proven to be perfect role models for future Nigerian athletes who intend to join the university.