Courtney Okolo destroyed her own US collegiate 400m record with her outdoor season opener last month. We caught up with the latest US one-lap sensation.

Love at first sight

Back at elementary school Courtney Okolo used to get a buzz from beating the boys in schoolyard sprint races. But it wasn’t until ninth grade, aged 14, that the Texan from Carrollton officially kicked off her track career. Astutely she was encouraged to try the 400m and after running 66 seconds on her quartermile debut, her long-term attachment to the event was formed. 

“I think I have that combination of good speed and good endurance, so the 400m is perfect for me,” says Okolo.

Teenage heartbreak

Quickly developing into a state 400m champion, in 2011 Okolo had her heart set on booking a spot on the US team for the IAAF World Youth Championships in Lille. At the trials in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina however, Okolo finished third in a PB of 53.03 – an agonising 0.06 behind second placed Kendall Baisden to just miss out on a place on the plane to France.

“That was my first loss that really hurt,” recalls Okolo. “I was gutted to miss out. It was tough. Yet it motivated me for the next year or so.”

Hampered by injury in 2015, Okolo opened her 2016 season with a bang

University challenge

Determined to take the next step in her track development and inspired by the rich 400m tradition at the University of Texas – Olympic champion and US record holder Sanya Richards-Ross is a former Longhorn – she took up a scholarship at the Austin-based college in 2012.

However, Okolo found the switch from high school to university life a challenging move.

“I didn’t have the level of training compared to many of the other runners, so transitioning into the training was much harder,” she admits.

“I had to learn to be self-motivated, regardless of what the workout was, or how I was feeling. The only way I was going to get better was if I pushed myself.”

The high level of application worked. In 2013, her freshman year, she was crowned national junior 400m champion in an impressive 51.04 just two weeks after placing fourth in the NCAA final.

Dreamteam

In her sophomore year she linked up with her current coach, Tonya Buford-Bailey. Since then her career has gone from strength to strength. Buford-Bailey, the 1996 Olympic 400m hurdles bronze medallist and still the fifth fastest in history, has introduced both greater speed and speed endurance into Okolo’s programme. But it’s another area in which the coach-athlete relationship has flourished.

“I think what I value the most is race strategy,” explains Okolo. “We work together and figure out a way that I can run my fastest race. It is a great environment to be in.”

Courtney Okolo at Portland 2016 ()

 Okolo clocked 50.71 on third leg, the fastest split in the world 4x400m final at Portland 2016

Beat dem boyz

One thing that hasn’t changed since her early elementary school beginnings is her hunger for competing with the boys.

“They bring a different dynamic as guys are certainly a lot more up front and do a lot more talking during training,” she says. “It is different, but I like it.”

Possessing large reserves of strength, she is known to embarrass the odd male training partner during gruelling hill sessions.

“We have this long hill we run up which we do about five times and seeing some of the other people fall off along the way is good,” adds Okolo, who secured her first NCAA outdoor crown in 2014 clocking a then US collegiate record of 50.03. 

Back from the brink

A torn calf muscle derailed her ambitions of a successful NCAA title defence and a place on the US team for the Beijing world champs last year. Unable to compete at regionals, she failed to qualify for NCAAs and after missing five weeks of training with the injury, she had to settle for fifth in the 400m semi-final at the US Outdoors. Yet, she refused to dwell on the disappointment and has emerged a stronger athlete.

“I feel like I am now more motivated than ever,” she says. “I have taken everything to a whole new level.”

Since last year she is more focused on warm-downs, stretching and core stability exercises and has taken extra care on nutrition.

Women's 4x4 in Portland 2016 ()

 PORTLAND PRIZE: The US women's 4x4 relay convincingly won gold in 3:26.38

Reaping rewards

The more disciplined approach reaped rewards during a stunning indoor season. She retained her NCAA 400m indoor title in a blistering PB and world leading time of 50.69 and was rewarded with a place on the US 4x400m team at the World Indoor Championships in Portland.

Running leg three in 50.71, Okolo blazed to the fastest split of the day to help the US quartet claim an emphatic gold medal triumph.

“I was really thankful to be a part of that team,” the 22-year-old says. “I was the only collegian on the team, so I wanted to make sure I played my part and contributed.”

Need for speed

Never one to rest on her laurels, Okolo, who cites the last 200m as her strength, has worked hard with Coach Buford-Bailey on developing her speed over the first half. It paid off last month when she dismantled her former US collegiate record by a massive 0.32 seconds to clock 49.71 at the Louisiana State Alumni Gold meet in Baton Rouge.

“I knew I had to push and be uncomfortable and hit 200m in around 23.8,” she says. “It was great to break the record.”

Having recorded such a blistering early season clocking – a time which would have been good enough for bronze at the 2015 World Championships and the 2012 Olympics – she has set herself the target to not only regain her NCAA crown, but also make the US team for the Rio Olympics.

“I feel like training is going well. I’ve only really started pushing the first 200m, so I know I have more things to work on and definite improvements [to make].”

Cover image credit: University of Texas