As she waited for her mother to pick her up, ninth grader Chioma Okonkwo watched members of the Murrieta Mesa High School track team practice. The track coach, sensing Okonkwo’s possible interest, asked if she’d like to join them. Although dressed in black leggings, high-top Converse sneakers and a Forever 21 tank top, Okonkwo ran a few laps and stretched with the athletes.
Then the wind sprints began. Blessed with incredible speed and determination, Okonkwo ran so fast that the impressed coach asked her to join the team on the spot.
She had but one request: “Bring real running shoes next time.”
As a freshman at Murrieta Mesa in Riverside County, California, Okonkwo not only made the varsity team, but she also immediately challenged a senior as the team’s fastest women sprinter. As a junior, Okonkwo became the Inland Empire 400-meter Champion. The following year, she took the 200- and 400-meter crowns.
Today, the 21-year-old USC Viterbi senior competes against some of the fastest women in the world as a member of the USC Track & Field team. As a junior, she ranked in the top 50 nationally in the 200 with a time of 23.4. This year, Okonkwo has equaled her personal best in the 100 and hopes to make the finals in the 100 and 200 at the NCAA Track and Field Championships in June and become an All-American. She dreams of possibly participating in the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
As ambitious off the track as on it, Okonkwo hopes to one day launch her own architectural firm to oversee major infrastructure projects in Nigeria, India and other developing countries. A civil engineering major with a building science emphasis in the Sonny Astani Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, she also hopes to earn a master’s degree at USC in advanced design or architecture/building science.
“I want people to remember me as someone who just did everything full force, even if it was going to be hard,” said the American-born Okonkwo, who could represent the United States, Great Britain or Nigeria as an Olympian, since her mother was born in England and her father hails from Nigeria. “I want to succeed so badly.”
Her tenacity, perseverance and smarts have allowed her to do just that, despite the many hurdles she’s faced along the way.
Her father, a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in urban and regional planning from Eastern Washington University, returned to his native Nigeria for architecture work when Okonkwo was just a young girl. Unfortunately, his employer refused to pay him, Okonkwo said, leaving him penniless and with no way to get back home. His years-long absence placed a real financial strain on her family, with her mother barely eking out a living caring for elderly people.
Between the ages of 8 and 15, Okonkwo said her mother and two brothers bounced between friends’ and family’s homes. When her mother developed breast cancer and lost her job, their situation further deteriorated. “We were definitely house hopping at some points,” she said.
Still, Okonkwo rarely despaired. She said her religiosity and close relationships with her mother, two brothers and father sustained her. She also found solace in building virtual houses and other architectural gems on video games such as the Sims and Minecraft. In time, her love of sprinting would also give her strength.
Faster than the boys
In eighth grade, Okonkwo first became aware of her unrivaled speed while playing capture the flag. No boy or girl could catch her. Ever. Okonkwo found running liberating.
“Someone like me, I tend to overthink a lot,” she said. “I feel free and don’t think about anything when I run.”
After her stellar high school career, Okonkwo generated a lot of collegiate interest. Duke, Stanford and UCLA, among others, heavily recruited her. However, she decided to become a Trojan because of USC’s academic and athletic excellence.
“I wanted to go somewhere where I was going to be pushed academically and in sports but taken care of,” Okonkwo said. “USC was kind of like the perfect place, the best of both worlds, basically.”
As a member of the track team, she said she has benefitted from the world-class coaching, training and facilities, adding that she has particularly enjoyed visiting new places like South Carolina and Florida for the first time. The love and support of her teammates has meant everything to her. “We’re like a big family,” Okonkwo said.
In fact, USC’s track team literally is her family. This year, Okonkwo’s brother, Matthew, a master’s student in global supply chain management, a joint program offered by USC Viterbi and the USC Marshall School of Business, made the men’s team in the 100, 200 and 400 meters. He said he’s proud to call his little sister a teammate.
“She’s so inspiring and always gives it her best,” said Matthew Okonkwo, a former Big West Conference champion in the 200 and 400 meters at the University of California, Davis. “Sometimes, I’ll see her working really hard and just follow her example.”
Chioma Okonkwo has repeatedly had to overcome adversity on the track.
COVID-19 wiped out most of her first year. An injury sidelined her for the bulk of her sophomore year, when USC Women’s Track and Field won the NCAA National Championship. After missing nearly two years, Okonkwo struggled with her confidence at the beginning of her junior year. Happily, she worked through the self-doubt, “did everything full force,” and barely missed qualifying for the NCAA Finals in the 100 and 200. This year, she has battled through a hip injury.
“Chioma has the drive to be great,” said Carmelita Jeter, assistant sprints coach at USC Track and Field. “She brings such energy to practice every day. She always has a smile on her face and is always motivating her teammates.”
Happy in Troy
Academically, Okonkwo said she has flourished thanks to USC Viterbi’s excellent faculty and students. As a member of the USC chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, she has made lifelong friends and availed herself of study groups.
Okonkwo thinks that her engineering background has made her a better runner.
“Track is so, so, so technical. You’re training for months, years to lower your time by like, maybe three-tenths of a second,” she said. “It’s all about precision and execution, just like engineering.”
Whatever happens on the track in the future, Okonkwo said becoming a Trojan was among the best decisions she’s ever made.
“There’s so many opportunities here and everything you’re looking for, whether it’s job or learning opportunities, athletics, or socializing, there’s so much to do,” she said. “And you’re also in L.A., where there’s so much to do, so many people to learn from, such diversity.
“Despite COVID, mask mandates, injuries and all that, my experience has been phenomenal. I’m very grateful for it,” Okonkwo added.
Published on May 3rd, 2023
Last updated on May 3rd, 2023