Texas' Courtney Okolo competes in a women's 400-meter semifinal at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships in Eugene, Ore. She placed sixth in the 400 final at the U.S. Olympic trials on Sunday. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)

Track & Field

Courtney Okolo might be America’s next big thing — just don’t ask her

Posted June 30th, 2016

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Story highlights
  • Beginning Friday, Okolo will be looking to progress through three stages of the U.S. Olympic trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore, which is the same site where she cruised to the 400 title at the NCAA Championships on June 11.
  • Should she perform to expectations, Okolo also will be in position for a spot in the U.S. relay pool, which would give her the opportunity to help the Americans defend a gold medal in the 1,600-meter relay.

According to just about everyone, University of Texas graduate Courtney Okolo qualifies as the favorite in a stacked field competing in the women’s 400 meters at this week’s U.S. Olympic track and field trials.

Everyone, that is, except for Okolo.

“I feel like everyone has this idea I’m the favorite,” Okolo said. “People see it differently than I do.”

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With a glittery rèsumè that includes six collegiate national titles, including two in the outdoor 400, Okolo possesses the goods to be America’s next great track and field star. Yet you’d never know it by sitting down and chatting with her. Meek and soft-spoken, she appears uneasy with the spotlight that comes from posting the world’s second-fastest time this season.

Recently named a repeat finalist for the prestigious Bowerman Award given to the nation’s top college performer in track and field, Okolo, who is undefeated this season, said she won’t stuff the ballot box or even cast a single vote to increase her chances because “that’s too much work.”

To her, well done is better than well said.

“I think we’re going to see her come out of her shell in the coming years and with what she’s doing on the track, we’re not going to be able to help but listen to her,” said Paul Doyle, Okolo’s agent.

Until then, Okolo will let her legs speak for her. Beginning Friday, she’ll be looking to progress through three stages of the trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., the same site where she cruised to the 400 title at the NCAA Championships on June 11.

By virtue of the collegiate record she set in April with a time of 49.71 seconds, Okolo’s the favorite to claim one of three U.S. berths in the women’s 400 at the Rio Games. However, she can’t afford a bad race, not with fellow Americans Quanera Hayes, Francena McCorory and Phyllis Francis all residing in the top six of the world rankings. Also lurking are 2015 world champion Allyson Felix and defending Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards Ross, a Longhorn legend who is trying to overcome a hamstring injury she suffered this month to make her fourth Olympic team. Regardless of the outcome, Richards Ross, who Okolo considers to be something of an idol, says she’s retiring this summer. Likewise, Felix, 30, finds herself on the final lap of her career.

Conversely, Okolo, 22, is just getting started. Ideally, the graduate of Carrollton Newman Smith will stick around through two Olympic cycles beyond this one, at which time she’ll be 30 and perhaps ready to launch a career in physical therapy.

“I’ve thought about how long I want to run and I probably have two more Olympics,” Okolo said.

Okolo is among a large contingent of current and former Longhorns with a legitimate chance of making the U.S. team. Others in position to crack the roster include Marquise Goodwin (long jump), Ryan Crouser (shot put), Marielle Hall (10,000 meters) and Ashley Spencer (400 hurdles). Additionally, current Longhorns Senoj-Jay Givans (100, 200) and Chrisann Gordon (400) will be in Jamaica trying to make the Olympic team for their native country.

And don’t forget about defending Olympic silver medalists Leo Manzano (1,500 meters) and Trey Hardee (decathlon), both former Longhorns.

Should she perform to expectations, Okolo also will be in position for a spot in the U.S. relay pool, which would give her the opportunity to help the Americans defend the gold medal in the 1,600 relay that they won at the 2012 London Games.

“I look at her as more of a long-term prospect in the sport, but I also believe she’s ready now,” Doyle said. “We are fully expecting her to be on the podium in Rio — not to get ahead of ourselves. I think she’s going to be a star for the immediate present and the future.”

This past week, Nike made a long-term commitment to Okolo, outbidding one other apparel company for the right to outfit her in the company’s iconic Swoosh. Doyle won’t disclose particulars of the deal, but did say “every shoe company was interested.”

By continuing with Nike, which also outfits Texas Athletics, Okolo is being consistent to a proven routine that includes listening to gospel music at the hotel and hip-hop on the bus ride to the track. Oh, and to eliminate a recurring concern that her shoestrings will come undone when she’s running, Okolo tucks them into her spikes. At the start line, she’ll glance down at her feet and double check.

She’s a bit of a worrier.

“If it’s a championship meet, I don’t think there’s any time where I haven’t been super nervous,” Okolo said, “but that’s good. If I’m not nervous, I’m not going to run my best.”

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