Female Performance of the Year: Nikki Okwelogu, Harvard's All-American Woman

By Phillip Yu

Coming into this season, there wasn’t a lot that junior Nikki Okwelogu had not done in the women’s shot put.

She had won Ivies. She had set school and Ivy records. She was a first team All-American.

But now, after this season, she can add winning a bronze medal at nationals—and setting two personal bests along the way—to the list.

This last item is courtesy of Okwelogu’s record performance at the NCAA indoor nationals this past February where she threw for 17.66 meters—breaking her old Ancient Eight record in the process—on her way to a third place finish.

The podium finish came in spite of a finger sprain earlier in the year that had limited Okwelogu’s practices and impacted her performance all season.

“Going into [the meet] I wasn’t as confident as I would have hoped to be, but that could have played into an advantage where I felt like I had nothing to lose,” Okwelogu said. “It worked out pretty well.”

Okwelogu got a big confidence boost from the first throw of the competition, where she set a new personal best of 17.49 meters—good enough to put her in first place at the time.

She would go on to best her initial mark a few throws later with a toss of 17.66 meters, another personal best, and the distance that ended up landing Okwelogu the bronze medal.

Though the success might come as a surprise to some, Okwelogu’s third place finish was the culmination of years of work. The Fresno, Calif. native attributes the success, in part, to nerves and pressure from her sixth-place performance at nationals last year.

“[Last year] was a big thing. Nobody wants to go back on your career, after getting sixth last year,” Okwelogu said. “I think I’m the type of competitor [for whom] nerves just give me an adrenaline boost that I know how to use.”

Okwelogu also credited her teammates for helping to push her both on and off the field. Before her performance, sophomore teammate Courtney Smith claimed her own first team All-America honors after finishing eighth in the 5K. Smith’s endeavor was a powerful motivation for the competitive Okwelogu.

“[Courtney] was younger than me, and I didn’t want to be showed up by her,” Okwelogu joked. “Since she raced the day before me and got eighth, I felt like I had to get at least eighth. I love her to death, but there’s always competition between teammates.”

It was a combination of all these factors—and some luck—that led to Okwelogu’s outstanding performance at nationals.

“You can always try with weightlifting and reps to try to make sure you’re at your best on a given day, but a lot of luck still goes into it,” Okwelogu said. “If I could describe it in one word, it would be surreal. I can’t believe it happened.”

While the junior was surprised with the performance, those following her career trajectory would have a hard time finding a reason to be surprised.

Okwelogu has dominated the Ivy League since she came into college, winning the Ancient Eight shot put title three consecutive times in both the indoor and outdoor championships—usually by significant margins.

For example, in this year’s rendition of the Ivy Championships, Okwelogu’s throw of 17.01 meters was almost ten feet better than the second place effort. Likewise, her throw in the outdoor Ivy Championships of 17.14 meters was more than ten feet better than her closest competitor.

“With Nikki, she’s the kind of kid where you are no longer surprised when she crushes everybody,” co-captain Paige Kouba said. “It’s just what she does.”

Okwelogu hopes to head to outdoor NCAA nationals in June. From there, she could return to the international stage and head to Brazil for the Olympics with the Nigerian national team.

For now, however, Okwelogu plans to take it all one step at a time.

“I’m still focused on this year,” Okwelogu said. “We’re gonna play this season out, then start to set goals for next season.”

Staff writer Phillip Yu can be reached at phillipyu@college.harvard.edu.

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