- Last month, Okolo became just the third woman in the history of the sport to break 50 seconds in the 400 meters before May.
- Okolo has long admired former Longhorn Sanya Richards-Ross, with whom she'll be competing with for a spot in the Rio Olympics.
- Injured last year, Okolo did not get the chance to defend the 2014 NCAA title she won in the 400 meters.
All that stands between Courtney Okolo and academic freedom is a 10-page paper due Friday in Neuromuscular Control.
Okolo, Texas’ 2014 400-meter outdoor national champion, delved into running economy as the subject — a topic, believe it or not, that she previously knew little about. Without getting overly technical, her work highlights the oxygen intake required to maintain certain speeds. Simply: Less oxygen equals faster times.
“It’s mostly for distance runners,” said Okolo, who will graduate this month with a degree in kinesiology.
For sprinters, Okolo has written the book. Or at least the record book. On April 23, in a meet at LSU, she burned to the finish line in 49.71 seconds, breaking her own collegiate record from two years ago by .32 seconds. To put the accomplishment into further perspective, only two other women in the history of the sport have broken 50 seconds before May. Incidentally, one of them, Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas, did it the weekend before Okolo and holds the world’s top time (49.69).
Okolo, who was running the 400 for the first time this season, tweaked her usual race strategy and went all-out for the first 200 meters.
“I feel I can go faster,” Okolo said. “But I’m just happy I ran that time and proved to myself I can do it. Now, it’s not so much about time. It’s about performing and competing.”
The time also eclipsed the school record held by Okolo’s idol, Sanya Richards-Ross, with whom Okolo will be competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the Summer Games in Rio. Richards-Ross, 31, the defending Olympic champion, recently announced this will be her final go-round before retirement.
Though the two don’t have much of a relationship, Okolo holds Richards-Ross in high regard. She likened the first time she saw Richards-Ross, when Okolo was in high school, at the Texas Relays to what it would be like to meet another one of her idols, Beyoncé. Last year, at Baylor’s Michael Johnson Classic, Okolo and Richards-Ross went head-to-head. Okolo won, by one-half second.
“You can’t so much be a fan like you used to be,” Okolo said.
With three U.S. spots to fill on the Olympic squad, this isn’t necessarily an either/or thing. The team has space for Okolo and for Richards-Ross, plus someone else, perhaps 2015 world champion Allyson Felix.
“There’s going to be a changing of the guard, and that always happens in sports. So why not now?,” said Texas associate coach Tonja Buford-Bailey, the Olympic bronze medalist in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “There would be no point as a competitor to wait. It’s an Olympic year, and you have to try to beat everybody. It doesn’t matter who they are or if you admire them.”
First things first. Okolo wants to win another NCAA title, which she’ll have a chance to do at the national championships June 8-11 in Eugene, Ore. Texas is withholding its premier athletes from this weekend’s Longhorn Invitational, so Okolo won’t be back on the track again until next weekend’s Big 12 championships at TCU. Then it’s regionals, followed by nationals.
A calf injury sidelined Okolo for last year’s postseason, depriving her of defending the NCAA title she captured in 2014. Instead, Florida State’s Kala Funderburk took the title over Texas sophomore Kendall Baisden. Last summer, Baisden walked away from her final two years of college eligibility and relocated to San Diego to train with former Texas coach Bev Kearney. Funderburk is also gone from the mix after early graduation.
Barring another setback, Okolo is the favorite, though she insists, “this is not a redemption run.”
Okolo, who signed with Texas out of Carrollton Newman Smith, is not a natural athlete and didn’t even play a sport until she picked up track in the ninth grade. A quick study, she wound up winning three Class 4A state titles.
Now she’s leaving in her dust the top runners in the world and hopes to put off physical therapy school to pursue Olympic glory and to bask in all of the endorsements and late night talk show visits that follow.
Who knows, maybe along the way she’ll get to shake hands with Beyoncé.
“Those are my aspirations,” Okolo said.