Ijeyikowoicho Onah is typically not an underdog when it comes to track and field competitions. While at Ithaca High School, she was one of Section IV’s top performers in both the 400-meter and long jump. During her recently completed freshman season at the University of Albany, she walked away with the America East Conference indoor and outdoor long jump titles.
She found herself in the underdog role earlier in July when competing on the biggest stage of her career, the Pan-American Under-20 Championships in San Jose, Costa Rica. Onah qualified for the event by finishing second in the long jump at the USA Track and Field Under-20 Championships but was seeded ninth of the 11 competitors in Costa Rica. Then in the prelims, her best jump was 5.37 meters (17 feet-7.5 inches), a mark she says she first reached as a freshman in high school. Still, it earned a spot in the finals.
“I realized I had been given an incredible opportunity because a 5.37 usually isn’t enough to advance to the finals,” Onah said. “I knew I had to take advantage of having another chance.”
Her first jump in the finals cleared 6.09 meters (19-11.75), just shy of her collegiate best of 6.15 meters (20-2). The mark of 6.09 meters stood up for a third-place finish, earning Onah a bronze medal in her first international competition.
“I was relieved and excited after that first jump,” Onah said, who was only 0.06 meters (0.25 inches) behind first-place Claire Bryant, a Texas high schooler. “It showed how I have grown as an athlete because I usually have not done as well in the final due to physical and mental fatigue. But even though I was physically fatigued, I was able to have the mind take over and remind the body it still had a job to get done.”
Onah said the environment of competing on the international stage wasn’t as intimidating as she expected, but there was one thing she wasn’t quite ready for. The event was held at the Estadio Nacional in San Jose, which seats more than 35,000 and features a 1,700 square foot high definition video board.
“Seeing yourself on a big screen in that kind of competitive state is pretty awesome,” Onah said. “But I have to apologize to everyone who has had to watch me warm up and compete. I understand now why people say I run mean. I never realized what I looked like on the runway - I have a big frown and I look pretty scary.”
She had a much better time watching her competitors in other events. She particularly enjoyed the 4x400 relays, which closed the event. The United States men’s team set a U20 world record with a time of 2:59.30 seconds while the U.S. women’s squad set the U20 world record of 3:24.04 while winning by more than six seconds.
“To see that amount of speed blew me away,” Onah said. “It also inspired me because I was watching athletes from a team I was on competing at a level most professionals won’t ever reach. It gave me a glimpse of what my future in track and field could be like and made me hungry for more.”
Onah accomplished plenty in her freshman season at Albany. She won the American East outdoor long jump title with a jump of 6.15 meters (20-2.25), which was nearly a foot better than the runner-up. Her margin of victory was much smaller at the conference indoor championship, but she still finished first, clearing 5.89 meters (19-4) to win by 0.07 meters (2.75 inches). She also finished second in the long jump at a pair of indoor invitational meets and was third at the IC4A/ECAC Outdoor Championships.
She earned her way to Costa Rica in dramatic style by finishing second in the USATF U20 Championships in Miramar, Florida., in June. After the first round of jumps, she led the 13-women field at 5.81 meters (19-0.74), but that distance left her tied for fifth going in the sixth and final attempt. That’s when Onah nailed a 5.89-meter (19-4) effort that lifted her into second place and secured her spot in Costa Rica.
With this kind of experience under the belt, Onah has her eyes on doing even more next season.
“This had made me think about what I can do at the regional and national level,” she said. “I want to push myself harder next season and maybe reach the top 20.”
Onah explained how far she has come since starting college.
“I was a little lenient with myself last year because it was my first season in college,” Onah said. “I know I was scared for most of the season, but despite the fear, I was still able to accomplish a lot. Now as a sophomore, I should be a little more comfortable and be able to go beyond what I did as a freshman. I look at reaching the NCAA Championships as a reasonable goal instead of a wild dream. I know where I want to be, and I know how to get there. Now I just have to do it.”
Making the NCAAs would be the next step in a journey that started with a track program at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) before advancing to Ithaca High.
“The thing that motivates most is someone says they’re going to beat me,” she said. “For years, I competed against my own teammates with the GIAC Navigators because they were the ones I would run against all the time. There was one boy who would tell me, ‘I’m going to beat you,’ all the time. And if he did beat me, I had to race him again until I won.”
She said she realized then that competition is what makes her tick.
“You can talk the talk, but if you can’t walk the walk, you’re better off staying quiet,” she said. “If you say you want to reach a certain level, then you have to be willing to work for it. Actions speak louder than words.”
Recommended for you