Africa’s fastest woman and Olympic long jump bronze medallist Blessing Okagbare talks to Stuart Weir about going for gold in London and glorifying God through her sport.
There are only four women in the world faster than you. How does that feel?
[Laughs] Yes, that is what it says now: fifth place in the 2011 World Championship 100 metres final. That is a good thing; I wasn’t expecting that. Everyone else in the final had a faster time than me coming into the Championships. And I had to beat some good people to get into the final so I am excited about that.
And the fastest woman in Africa?
[Laughs again] That is just the grace of God: me being the fastest in Africa. The grace of God and me doing my thing.
Photo by Athletics Images
How did you get involved in athletics?
At first I played football for my high school and later fell in love with athletics. A teacher from my elder sister’s high school talked me into doing sport. At first I was just messing around with it, just doing it for fun. I was not serious about it but I was young then.
Why did you go to America?
It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. If I had stayed in Nigeria, the talent I have would not have developed: I would not be as good as I am now. When I left Nigeria, it brought out the best in me. God took me out of Nigeria to USA and I was so excited about it.
What are your memories of the 2008 Olympics?
I went with high expectations because I was jumping well before the Olympics. My goal was to jump a personal best in Beijing. I was ready for it but when I got there I was so nervous. I lost the whole rhythm and, before I knew it, the game was over. And I didn’t qualify for the final. I felt really bad because my coach was expecting so much from me, and even my country, but you can’t change what has happened.
But something changed and I was told I was in the final after all.[Blessing finished 13th but it was then announced that one of the 12 qualifiers, Lyudmyla Blonska, had tested positive for a banned substance. Blonska was disqualified with Blessing taking her place in the final.]
When I got the call it was like, “this is unheard of”. You didn’t make the final and yet you just got in the final somehow. And I thought: something is going to happen. God has something special for me out there. I was saying: “OK, I just got into the final!” I got to take my chance and whatever happens, I have got to do my best. So I gave it a shot and I got a bronze medal and it was phenomenal.
Tell me about your faith in God?
I am a woman of faith. I believe there is a God. I believe so much in the Word of God. Knowing him has changed my life.
What difference does Jesus make to your life?
He makes a lot of difference. I feel that knowing Jesus makes me unique. Sometimes it means not doing what others do. Like when you have practice in the morning and people still go to the nightclub until 5am. It doesn’t make sense to me. You have two hours sleep before practice and you can’t gain anything. For me to do that is a sin before God. So I try to stay away from the things that are against the will of God. Because I have the fear of God in me, I try not to do something where I know, if I do it, God is not going to be happy. (Photo above by Stuart Weir)
What do you believe about prayer?
It is a moment when you communicate with God and you seek for solutions, guidance, comfort; seek things you want. Sometimes I don’t super-pray; I just praise him and sing praises. Those times of prayer and praise draw me closer to God. They help me get answers from God.
Do you feel any tensions between being a Christian and being competitive?
I am not a really quiet type. Jesus showed love to people and he was a meek person but Satan could never defeat him. So as a Christian you don’t have to be weak. Sometimes we need some toughness. I can’t be weak when I go to compete.
Can you run for God’s glory the same way you sing to God’s glory?
It is different. When you run and are victorious, you praise God for that. Singing is different because you are singing to the glory of his name. But when you run drug-free then you are pleasing God.
What are your thoughts on the 2012 Olympics?
I am planning to be there! In 2011, I was not expecting too much – I was pleased to run as I did but it was really about preparation for 2012. I am maybe aiming to run the 100 and the 200 metres. Maybe I won’t be jumping.
You already have an Olympic medal: isn’t that enough?
No. I have a bronze and I am trying to see if I can step up to a gold. With two events I have two chances. Everybody goes to the Olympics to fight for medals. That is what I am going to do. I am not going there to play and watch people. I am going to prepare myself really well. I pray that I stay free from injuries and I hope to do great. I am really looking forward to it.