Coach tells her captivating narrative as a local athlete he begged to be included in teams and the irony of Oregon where she missed World Junior Championships because of visa hitches

By Jacob Ajom

Nigeria’s participation at the 2022 World Athletics Championship in Oregon, USA was made special by the outstanding performance and the iconic showing of Tobi Amusan who did not only win the 100 metres hurdles event but also created a world record with a time of 12.12s in the semi finals. She blasted that record two hours later in a wind-aided time of 12.06s.

Amusan’s performance and another female athlete Ese Brume who picked up a silver medal in the long jump event at the championships redesigned Nigeria’s declining status among great athletics nations in the world.

Her story with Oregon started years back, when, as a junior athlete, she was billed for the World Junior Athletics Championships but could not travel because the American Consular office in Abuja delayed the issuance of her visa.

According to coach Solomon Aliyu, who was her coach then, “the rest of the team had travelled and her visa was still being processed. She had a visa interview on Friday and her event was on Monday. As of Friday, her visa was yet to be issued. I stayed back to wait for her because she could not travel alone as she was still a minor.

“When at the end of Friday the passport was still not out, I decided to leave for the USA to join the rest of the team. But before I left, I advised her not to worry, that there were going to be many more championships she would attend in future because she had a very bright future.” That was how Tobi missed her first trip to Oregon.

Incidentally, it was that same venue, where she was supposed to launch her athletics career as a junior international that the 25-year old chose to stun the athletics world and on a bigger stage.

“When I saw her in the semi final of the World Championships when she ran the new world record of 12.12s, I said, wow. I quickly remembered that it was the same venue in 2014/2015 when she was supposed to go for the world Junior Championships held at the same Oregon which she missed. I also remembered telling her that the   America you were denied, you will get tired flying to the place. Little did I know that she would even become a resident in the US. It is very ironic that the same place and same event she missed launching her international career in the junior category became where she conquered the world in the senior category. She broke an African record in the heats, world record in semi final and finally she beat her own world record, even though they said it was wind aided.”

The story of Oluwatobiloba Ayomide Amusan is like a script for the big screen. Born in Ijebu Ode, Ogun state 25 years ago to parents who were both teachers, she grew up under a very strict regime. Her venture into athletics was not an all smooth affair in the home front as her father didn’t sanction it. At one instance, he burnt her running kits and warned that he should never see her run again. But she found a strong ally in her mother, who saw something different in her. When she was going for an out-of-state competition, she would lie to her father that she was going for an inter-school debate.

“My mom would cover for me that I was going for inter-school debates in Shagamu and then she would drive down there to give me my outfit,” the athlete told BBC Africa.

In the beginning, Tobi Amusan’s coach was Ayodele Solaja, a grassroots athletics coach in Ogun state. He honed her skills in track and field, but typical of a grassroots coach, his ward was like  Jack of all trades master of none. “She was competing in the relays, 100 metres and long jump,” coach Aliyu recalled. Indeed, Amusan herself told the BBC that she began as a footballer but when her coach discovered her high work rate because she was always everywhere on the pitch during training, the coach then advised that she should take to athletics because she would be better off there. That was how she fell in the hands of coach Ayodele Solaja.

Coach Aliyu recalled his first meeting with young Tobi.

“My first encounter with Tobi was when she was invited to the national camp at Sapele ahead of the African Youth championships. That was 2013 or 2014.

“We had a long camping in Sapele for both juniors and seniors. There were about 11(male and female) hurdlers in camp. We were leaving camp, at times for national competitions, then we would return after such engagements. We attended one competition in Warri. From Warri, we left for national trials in Calabar that year. I inherited Tobi with 14.60s and by the time we were done with camping in Warri and Sapele she ran 13.70s.”

Coach Aliyu said Amusan’s progression owed largely to her commitment, dedication, discipline and being focused. “This is an athlete that will always remind her coach about training time,” Aliyu said.

With her steady progress, she could not be ignored any longer. In 2015, she was invited again, this time, for the All Africa Games, her first at the senior level. Being a home-based athlete without much experience, Tobi was always overlooked by officials.

Her ordeal in the Port Harcourt camp before the 2015 All Africa Games speaks volumes. Coach Aliyu narrates: “My next encounter with her again was when she was also called to camp for the 2015 All Africa Games. Before the All Africa Games camp in Port Harcourt, she came second in our national trials with 13.60s behind Lindsay Lindley, our 100mH from the US. Lindsay had a 12.90s to her credit even before the national trials and was the favourite to win the All Africa Games gold in the event.

While in camp in Port Harcourt before the African Games, our head coach Gabriel Okon called us, all the coaches of the various disciplines. We normally have meetings intermittently but on this day we were called to discuss our athletes and their(our) medal chances before the Games.

So, for each group of athletes, the coaches would talk about the athletes and their medal chances: gold, silver or bronze, based on their performances and the coach’s assessment. When it got to the turn of hurdles, even before I said Jack, the other coaches said Lindsay had the brightest chance for the gold medal.

I told them if by their own assessment Lindsey would win a gold medal in that event, my own gold medalist would be Tobi Amusan. They were surprised at my assessment and asked why would I, as a coach, say an athlete with 13.60s had better chances of winning a gold medal than one with a 12.90s. I told them my assessment was based on my encounters with the two athletes. I insisted, by my own assessment, it would be Tobi for gold at the All African Games. I told them that based on what I had seen and by the level of their progress, I tipped Tobi for gold because of her progression.

I pleaded with the team selectors to include her name in the team for the All Africa Games. One thing I asked of them was not to put any medal against her name because I didn’t want the young girl to be under any pressure. They said there was no problem. That was how they added her name as second hurdler, behind Lindsay.

It happened that we were to go to China for the World Championships-some coaches and some selected athletes were excused from camp to attend the Senior World Athletics Championship. Tobi started nursing the feeling that if I left for China, they were going to decamp her. Her fears were genuine because some of the 4x400m  hurdlers  that were in camp had been decamped as they were assessed to have no medal chances.

She feared that with my absence, it would be easier for them to drop her. I assured her that nothing like that would happen because I had gotten her name in the team already and if there was any new development, the team going to China would be in the know. But should that happen, she could reach me via WhatsApp.

“True to her words, while we were in China she called and said she had been dropped. The list eventually got to us in China because the AFN President, Chief Solomon Ogba, was part of the trip, the secretary general, Olumide, Kayode Thomas, then a board member,Yusuf Ali and coach Gabriel Okon were all in China.

So I quickly alerted Yusuf Ali to help me speak with the AFN president and the other board members that were present in China. I had also talked to the girl in camp that she was the only home-based hurdler I had in the camp. I said they should just trust my word and allow her to be part of the team to travel for the All Africa Games in Congo.

So I was lucky the AFN president listened and her name was included in the final team. That was her first major international outing that changed the whole narrative and that was the platform she actually needed. It took her to the USA. I’m sure you already know the story of her performance in Congo where she won Gold at 13,15s, the same time she ran in the finals   Lindsey placed third.. By that same year, she had her scholarship and in January 2016 she left for the US where she has blossomed and achieved her potential.

Amusan was also frustrated by officials in the relays. As good as she was in the relays, she was always overlooked. At most meets, she would be ready to run but the coaches were always dropping her from the team because she was considered a risk because she was small and considered inexperienced. Coach Solomon Aliyu admitted that she is a sprinter and hurdles being her specialty was an advantage in the sprints and relays.

He recalls: “Yes, for you to be able to run that fast over the hurdles, you must have a very good speed. In fact, most countries include hurdlers in their relay teams because if there are any good hurdlers in the team, they are always returning good times.

We have this belief in this part of our world that you must be experienced, to be able to stand the big stage. So the relay crew then, in their own wisdom, felt she was still a novice and that she might not be able to stand up when it mattered most . They normally excuse her from the relay team even though whoever was coming to replace her would not be better than her.

On two occasions she pleaded with me in a competition venue to say that team coaches have refused to feature her in the relay team and that she didn’t like what they were doing to her. And I would tell her Tobi, you still have a lot of years ahead of you.

This relay you are being denied, you will be the one to choose when to run the relay when the time comes. And I think that has also manifested itself already because she was supposed to be part of the relay team in the world championships but she actually said she needed to stay fresh and fit for her main event and that contributed to her blistering form in her event.“

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