Behind Udodi Onwuzurike's Road To Success At World U20s


* Brother Rice graduate Udodi Onwuzurike, Class of '21, finished off his high school career with a World U20 title at 200m

Photo Credit: Submitted


"As it went through the heats, I was feeling good. I thought to myself, 'Who knows, maybe I could 19.'" -- Udodi Onwuzurike


By Cory Mull - MileSplit


LET'S REWIND IT FIVE YEARS. Udodi Onwuzurike was 13 years old when he predicted, to anyone that would listen, that he would break records. 

Picture a teenager short of stature, the son of two Nigerian parents, all arms and legs, the kind of kid who latches on to you and never lets go. Big smile. Loud voice.

On this particular day, the 13-year-old Udodi was following around his older brother Chiebuka on the Brother Rice High School track. Only, he was acting like he was the fastest guy on the track. Like he was the guy to beat. Telling anyone within an earshot just how good he was. 

Enter Deron Early, the longtime coach of Brother Rice High School and the Primetime Track Club program, a man who in his prime ran sub-21 seconds for 200 meters. The elder statesman. A man who wasn't about to listen to some kid blow smoke. 

"What's he saying?" Early asked. 

"He said he's going to break every record out there when he gets older," Chiebuka said.  

Early had been there, done that. The 57-year-old had seen everything. 

"Sure thing, kid," the coach said. 

"Long as it stays in the family," Chiebuka quipped. 

---


PRESENT DAY, that memory is tattooed in Early's mind. 

Because just a few years later, Onwuzurike would go on to break all those school records at Brother Rice, surpassing some of the same marks his brother used to have. As a sophomore, he clocked six performances under 22 seconds for 200m. He added eight more times under 11 for 100m.

A year later, despite all odds, he would lower them again, hitting 21.12 on the clock at the West Coast AAU Junior Olympics in Las Vegas. It was his only competition during the COVID-19-shortened season. 

But that would only serve as a prelude to his senior season, when Onwuzurike would enter the canon of high school track and field history by winning a World U20 Championship for 200 meters in August while representing Nigeria in Nairobi, Kenya. Few athletes in high school history are granted the perfect catalyst, when historic-level performances sync up with pinnacle-level moments. 

Onwuzurike seemingly found the tipping point.

He ran a wind-legal time of 20.21 seconds on a 0.5 meters per second wind, entering into the high school national record books for 200m -- at No. 6 overall -- and securing a Michigan state record in the process. His performance was part of two state-record marks over the 2021 season. 

How did Onwuzurike reach those heights so late in his career? Early thinks it came down to one thing: Surefire belief. 

"'His freshman year, 'Dodi was always the smallest guy on the track," Early said. "The other guys looked like giants. But he could always beat them." 

And yet, Onwuzurike didn't strike the iron while it was hot just once. Over the last two months of his high school career, he ran incredible times of 20.78 (+1.7), 20.47 (-1.0), 20.13w (+2.3) and 20.21 (+0.5) seconds for 200 meters. He also added elite efforts of 10.23 (+1.6) and 10.43 (+0.3) for 100 meters, too.

"I feel really good," said Onwuzurike, who switched his international allegiance from the U.S. to Nigeria in July. "It's been a difficult year. I had my moments." 

Consider something else quite remarkable: That Onwuzurike went from a high-caliber recruit headed to Stanford University, to an absolute phenom who might be the best sprints signee to ever grace the Palo Alto campus. 

In the process, he also became the next great Nigerian hope -- he was No. 2 in the 200m on the year for Nigeria, only behind Divine Oduduru -- and a potential Olympic-level talent heading into 2024.

"We knew he was a big talent coming in," said J.J. Clark, Stanford's director of track and field. "That's why we recruited him. He's obviously gone beyond some people's expectations." 

But just how good has he become? 


"'His freshman year, Dodi was always the smallest guy on the track. The other guys looked like giants. But he could always beat them." -- Deron Early


For reference, Onwuzurike's personal best outdoor times at 100 and 200 meters are faster than Stanford's all-time best marks at those two distances. Indoors, he owns a faster overall time than the Cardinal's top overall mark in the 200m. He's just a hundredth-of-a-second away from the school program's top time in the 60m. 

You get what we're trying to say.

As long as he enters the program healthy and driven, Onwuzurike will compete right away and should have an opportunity to make an NCAA final and compete for a national title. 

He's the first individual World U20 champion to enter the Cardinal program and the second gold medalist to arrive since Olivia Baker, who won a 4x400 title for Team USA at the 2014 World U20 Championships in Eugene.

"The idea is that he is unique," Clark said. "I don't care where you put him, or in what era. He is a unique talent and we're happy that he's joining us." 

Pardon the hyperbole, but here's what Seigha Porbeni, the head coach of Team Nigeria, also said of Onwuzurike in August: 

"He's our Usain Bolt." 

If you consider that, just two months ago, you could have argued that Onwuzurike wasn't even the top recruit in the state of Michigan, this statement would be amazing in its own right. 

---


TO SAY THAT ONWUZURIKE'S SUCCESS WAS EXPECTED would be an understatement.

No one doubted that he had the talent or the instinct to compete with anyone around him. After all, he signed with Stanford in November, right as the National Letter of Intent period was opening. He was a legitimate Division I sprinter before all of this happened. 

But few could have envisioned the level at which he finished. He hadn't run under 21 seconds ahead of his junior season -- indoors or outdoors -- or broken 10.5. 

And then fellow Michigan athlete Brandon Miller -- a teammate of Udodi's at Early's Primetime Performance Track Club -- won a national indoor title in the 200m in February. Miller even ran faster than his peer in July, posting an overall outdoor best of 20.49w for 200m at Outdoor Nationals. 

Onwuzurike had an up and down indoor season. It started with quality marks at the Grant Holloway Holiday Invitational and then a personal best time and U.S. No. 2 time of 6.72 seconds for 60m at The VA Showcase. 

But that's also where the problems started.

He endured a left hamstring injury in that same race. A month later, after therapy and recovery, he returned to Virginia to compete at adidas Indoor Nationals but found the same problem flare up. With the other hamstring

Anyone else coming off an injury like that would have shut it down and waited for the outdoor season. He didn't. 

Less than a month later, after some recovery, Onwuzurike went out and ran the fastest effort in Michigan history -- on a 300m flat track -- with a time of 20.90, becoming the first athlete in state history to go under 21 seconds indoors. It was the sixth-fastest time in high school history, though it would not be a state record since it was on an oversized track. 

"I always felt I was a low-20 point runner," Onwuzurike said recently. "I was just never healthy or in a good situation."

---


WE COULD GO ON and say that Udodi's issues with his hamstrings persisted, which they did over the next few months outdoors, but that would be beside the point, too.  

Onwuzurike made a series of good moves over that stretch that proved to be the difference. While he continued to compete, he also worked on the right systems to strengthen his legs. He continued to run through April and May, doing just enough to get by. That's why you'll see a few 11-second and 22-second performances for 100m and 200m littered across his performance timeline. 

In the interim, though, Early focused on building balance. He said he often took Onwuzurike to the pool, where the sprinter "did A skips and B skips, then backed up against the wall and did one minute cycles," Early said.  

"He was in the pool for 45 minutes and non-stop for 45 minutes." 

There were hill workouts and core work, and all the little things that go unnoticed during any athlete's build-up toward competition. But for Onwuzurike, it metastasized in the right away and forged a body that was strong on both ends. 

In June, more success would come. Onwuzurike pocketed a Michigan High School Athletic Association LP Division I title at 100 meters with a time of 10.55 seconds ... into a negative-6.0 wind. His first state outdoor title. 

He followed with another state win in the 200m, with a time of 21.23 seconds.

Then in July, focusing on the 100m and looking for an all-time mark, he won at Brooks PR, taking down the likes of Aaron Bell, Anthony Smith and Terrell Robinson with a time of 10.23 seconds.

Officially, it was three-tenths faster than he had ever run.

---

IT WAS THEN, right after his win at Brooks PR, that Onwuzurike began to think about the World U20 stage. 

In January, he had met Chidi Okieze, a Nigerian sprinter, at the Grant Holloway Invitational. The duo had exchanged their contacts and kept in touch. 

With that performance in Seattle, though, Okieze reached out to him and suggested, "there are a few Nigerians who have run similar times. You could run on a relay."

At that point, Nigeria was simply picking athletes, as its national junior championship had been canceled. Onwuzurike started to feel optimistic. Maybe he could run in an open event, he thought.

But there was only one problem. 

Onwuzurike was still technically considered an American athlete under World Athletics. 

At the time, he had never truly thought -- at least in length -- about his nationality. And so it dawned on him ... nearly every year of his life, his mother, Indira, and his father, Chris, would take him and his siblings back to Nigeria to visit family in Aba, a small city spread across a few villages which sat in the southeastern rung of the country. 

Even though his parents had found great success in the U.S., with his mother becoming a doctor and his father a well-respected construction professional, they also cherished their Nigerian roots. 

Onwuzurike thought about his future.

"Running for the U.S. might be more glamorous, but it's also a lot more difficult to get on the team," he said. "Seeing the support and reaction I was getting from Nigerian fans and everything there, it was cool to see." 

He decided on his future in July. It was Nigeria. 

His decision set in motion a whirlwind of travel. First, he said, he flew to Washington, D.C. to get his passport renewed at the Nigerian embassy. From there, however, he also needed to run a race under the Nigerian flag that was recognized by World Athletics ahead of the World U20 competition. 

On July 9, he earned an entry into the 100m at the American Track League competition in Marietta, Georgia, and posted a solid time of 10.43 seconds -- though still as an American-based athlete. A few weeks later, in one of those 'aha' moments, he dropped the first sub-21 of his outdoor career at the Sound Running Sunset Tour in Azusa, California, finishing fourth in the 200m in 20.78 seconds. He was officially a Nigerian athlete.

In that latter race, he found himself even with eventual winner Josephus Lyles on the curve heading into the straightaway. Lyles would win with a time of 20.22 seconds.

"He was surprised to be running with him on the curve," Early remembers hearing from Onwuzurike. "I told him, 'No one will beat you on the curve.' In fact, he's a little too aggressive on the curve. I told him, you wan to come off it and then be aggressive and finish the last 80 meters." 

"Even after coming off the track, I knew that I could do a lot better," Onwuzurike said. "But we came here for one reason, and I got it done." 

Weeks later, with his switch official, he was off.

It took nearly 21 hours of total travel time, across two flights and a long layover, before he was in Nairobi.

"It was a long journey," he said. 

---

WHILE THE STAGE WAS SET AT WORLD U20s, Onwuzurike felt at home. He roomed with Dubem Amene, a sophomore on the University of Michigan track and field team. Amene had actually grown up just miles away from Onwuzurike back in Michigan. The entire U20 team was stationed in one hotel, alongside a few other small teams. 

"They had these mini-hotels and they were all stacked with the country's athletes," Onwuzurike said. "We were there. Portugal was there. Colombia was there." 

In some ways, it felt like his first international trip was like opening Pandora's box. There was so much to process.

But he was quick to remind himself: He was there for a purpose. 

"I wanted to win," he said. "I wanted to establish myself as a good 200m runner." 

On Day 3 of action, he made a splash, finishing first in the 200m among all preliminary heats with a personal record time of 20.47 seconds, despite having the 10th-best reaction time. 

That same night, in the evening session, he broke off what would become his best performance ever. He coasted through the line for a time of 20.13 seconds. The wind read 2.3 meters per second, ruling it out as an official wind-legal time. 

But Onwuzurike didn't care.

He just ran 20.13. That was the fastest overall performance of the high school season and tied for the fourth-best all conditions mark in high school history. How crazy was that? 

"As it went through the heats, I was feeling good," he said. "I thought to myself, 'Who knows, maybe I could 19.'"

Early was elated, too, but also felt bittersweet about the performance. 


"Running for the U.S. might be more glamorous, but it's also a lot more difficult to get on the team. Seeing the support and reaction I was getting from Nigerian fans and everything there, it was cool to see." -- Udodi Onwuzurike


Onwuzurike had taken his foot off the gas in the final 20 meters, looking to preserve more for the finals. Could he have actually hit 19 on the clock? At that point, only one other American teenager had ever accomplished the feat -- in June, 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton had reached the Olympics by breaking the 20-second mark, and setting a new World U20 record, at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene. 

"We ran the perfect race at U20s," Early said. "But he cut the last 20 meters. I said to him, 'Dodi, you owe me a 19 baby!'" 

A day later, on Aug. 21, Onwuzurike finished like a true closer, breaking the race open in the straightaway. As he drove through the last 50 meters, hardly anyone was close. 

He grabbed the World U20 title in 20.21 seconds, a full 0.17 seconds faster than second-place Letsile Tebogo of Botswana. 

With it came a World title. 

It was truly an astonishing feeling. A stunning culmination of a historic season. Nothing could have prepared Early for that moment. In over 30 years of coaching, he had seen all kinds of athletes, had developed NCAA Division I talents and future professionals. He had even coached an athlete that went to the 1996 Olympics. 

But in all the years he had spend navigating those waters, here was Udodi. He thought about the best athletes he ever coached. Few stood up to him. That Saturday, Udodi also ran the third leg of Nigeria's 4x100 relay, which ultimately was disqualified in the final leg. 

"'Dodi stacks up at the top," Early said. "He's No. 1 all right." 

---

NOW COMES THE FUTURE, which is very bright but ultimately not certain. Because in life, there is death and taxes, and in track and field, there is winning on the day and training for the rest of your life. You can't have one without the other. 

With every historic performance comes more training, races, championships and ultimately the pressure that succeeds success. Onwuzurike's big step is just the beginning of what needs to be several moves forward until he reaches that hot cauldron at the top. 

And so perhaps this World U20 title was only a precursor, much like that day five years ago on the Brother Rice track. This month, the Michigan native heads to Stanford, where he will enroll and begin the next phase of his journey.

He isn't sure where his academic road will take him, but he's considered economics or finance, something, "business related," he said. Beyond those concentrations, he'll put his focuses on the track. Perhaps with every success, he'll heed reminders from his past. 

Several years ago, he ran in his first big race. It was at the 2019 AAU Junior Olympics in Greensboro, North Carolina. 

Onwuzurike was a talented 16-year-old sprinter. He was good enough to reach the finals of the 200m. In that race, he lined up against future Arkansas recruit Connor Washington and Alabama signee Jekovan Rhetta. A 15-year-old from Tampa by the name of Erriyon Knighton, who would go on to finish fourth in the Olympic 200m final in Tokyo in August, would ultimately win that race in 21.15 seconds. 

It was his own breakthrough, the first taste of success for his own dreams. 

Onwuzurike finished third, not far behind. 

Perhaps in the near future, he'll get his rematch. No predictions are necessary.