By Yemi Olus
Last week, I started this series by highlighting the achievements of two of Nigeria’s most promising athletes in recent times, Tobi Amusan (100m Hurdles) and Ese Brume (Long Jump), who were both nominated in the ‘Track and Field Star of the Year’ category of the 2018 Nigerian Sports Awards held in November, and how Nigeria ought to be investing in them ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The third nominee in that category was Joy Udo-Gabriel (100m/200m), and even though she didn’t win the award, she was nominated in a second category, ‘Discovery of the Year’, alongside Simisola Balogun (Wresling) and Rasheed Omidiji (Football), which she won.
A couple of years ago, very little was known about Udo-Gabriel, but 2018 turned out to be an outstanding year for the 19-year old who ended up winning about 10 medals across local and international competitions. Still 18 at the time, she made the Nigerian team for the first time in her career after finishing 3rd in the women’s 100m at the Commonwealth Games Trials held in February this year, and was selected for the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.
At her international debut in Gold Coast, Udo-Gabriel who came with a Personal Best of 11.65secs, lowered her time to 11.42secs to finish 2nd in her 100m heat, making her the fastest qualifier for Nigeria in the event. She placed 4th in the semis, narrowly missing a place in the final. However, she was able to secure a Bronze medal in the 4x100m alongside Amusan, Rosemary Chukwuma and Blessing Okagbare after taking the first leg for Nigeria.
On her return to Nigeria, Udo-Gabriel emerged the fastest girl in the country after winning the 100m at the National U-20 Championships organized by the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) in Ozoro, Delta State in June. She also finished 2nd in the 200m.
This earned her a spot at the ECOWAS U-20 Championships in Cape Coast, Ghana, which also took place in June. Udo-Gabriel impressed once more, winning the sprint double to become the fastest girl in West Africa. She also won a Silver medal with Team Nigeria in the 4x100m relay.
Following her string of impressive performances, she was selected to represent the country at the IAAF World U-20 Championships in Tampere, Finland. Alas, Nigeria didn’t get to present a team after the trip was sabotaged, crushing the dreams of the young athletes that were penciled to represent the country in Finland.
With Okagbare opting out of the 100m and 200m at the African Championships in Asaba, Udo-Gabriel and Mercy Ntia-Obong were Nigeria’s flag bearers in Asaba. Udo-Gabriel commenced her campaign with a win in her heat where she clocked a time of 11.64secs, and then went on to win her semis in 11.68secs. In the final, she clinched Bronze with a time of 11.58secs, finishing behind World No.1 Marie Josee Ta Lou of Cote d’Ivoire (11.15secs) and Janet Amponsah of Ghana (11.54secs).
Not done with winning medals, she once again partnered with her Bronze-winning team from the Commonwealth Games: Amusan, Okagbare and Chukwuma, and this time around the quartet won Gold in front of the home fans in Asaba.
Udo-Gabriel, who is in her first year at the University of Lagos, represented the institution at the recently held West Africa University Games in Port Harcourt where she won the 100m, and took Silver in the 4x100m. She will be a major contender for the Gold medal at the forthcoming National Sports Festival in Abuja.
Udo-Gabriel is a product of school sports. While competing for her school, Stars International College Ikorodu in 2015, she emerged the fastest school girl in Lagos State after winning the 100m at the Lagos State Secondary School Sports Festival with a time of 12.9secs (hand-timed).
However, the relative success she has enjoyed this season hasn’t been by chance. She caught the eye of Sports Media and Management Company, Making of Champions, in 2015, and got recruited into their Track Club in 2016, and is currently being managed by the company.
Making of Champions secured for her a corporate sponsor through its Student-Athlete scholarship scheme, the first of its kind in Nigeria. And so her training, nutrition, accommodation, tuition and competition costs are being taken care of by her sponsor, thus providing a conducive atmosphere for her to train without having to worry about where her next meal is coming from, or the costs associated with travelling for a competition.
Incidentally, at the very core of Making of Champions is the firm belief that Nigeria can become the No. 1 Track and Field nation in the world within five years. In a bid to achieve its target, the company recruited Olympic medallists Deji Aliu, Uchenna Emedolu and Glory Alozie to coach and train its athletes to a world-class level in Nigeria, to ensure that we become a dominant force in World Athletics by Tokyo 2020.
Nigeria has several Tobi Amusans, Ese Brumes and Joy Udo-Gabriels who will never scratch the surface of their potential because we lack an enabling environment. However, what is the country doing with the athletes that are already showing great promise in the build up to Tokyo 2020, which is just a year and a half away? It is said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a step; the future starts today.