Lawrence Okoye last year turned down a promising rugby career and a place at Oxford University to focus on the discus in his quest to compete at the London 2012 Olympics.
British discus record-holder Lawrence Okoye was last week looking forward to tuning in to watch New Zealand take on France in the Rugby World Cup final. The recently-turned 20-year-old has followed the tournament closely, watching all of the matches online. “It’s New Zealand all the way for me,” comments Okoye. “I predicted in 2009 that they were going to win it.”
Back then, Okoye was heavily involved in the ball game as a member of the London Irish academy and had his eye set on one day competing in international rugby tournaments. He was an outstanding schoolboy player and as recently as last year he scored the winning try at the English Under-18 Cup. Standing at 6ft 5in, weighing 20st and with a tuft of hair at the front of his otherwise close-shaven head, Okoye was compared to former All Blacks star Jonah Lomu on more than one occasion.
But a chance conversation with friend and thrower Zane Duquemin saw Okoye start to train a bit more seriously for athletics, what was then very much his secondary sport.
“In the spring of 2010, my friend Zane threw the discus 56 metres and I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Croydonborn Okoye. “I asked him how he did it and he gave me his coach’s number. I joined the group, and within a matter of weeks I threw 63.92m.”
It sounds almost too simple to be true, like a bad Hollywood script written by someone who doesn’t understand that it takes years to reach the top in athletics. But Okoye (pronounded oh-KOY-yea) defied convention and just one month after producing the second-best discus throw ever by a British junior, he found himself on a plane to Canada to compete in the IAAF World Junior Championships, where he finished sixth.
But by the end of the summer he faced some difficult choices. He had been accepted by Oxford University to study law, but Okoye knew that he wanted to take time out to focus on sport. What made the decision even tougher was that he didn’t know which of the two sports in which he excels to focus on – athletics or rugby.
Ultimately, on reflection of his achievements earlier that year – combined with the lure of competing at an Olympic Games on home soil – Okoye made the decision to focus on discus throwing, deferring his entry to Oxford for an additional second year.
“It was an incredibly difficult decision to make,” said Okoye. “It was the summer I’d had in the discus in 2010 that really pushed me in that direction. London 2012 was definitely a key factor too. The goal of getting there within two years is what pushed me the most and I liked the challenge of that. I’m half way there now, so I’m pleased I’ve made that decision.
“Had the Olympics not been in London, it definitely would have been different,” he added. “I probably would have stuck with rugby, but it was the pull of the Olympics that made me decide to go down this route.”
In his first competition of 2011, Okoye knew he had made the right choice. Competing for the first time with the senior weight implement, Okoye hurled the discus out to 63.25m at the Surrey County Championships, securing the ‘B’ standard for the World Championships and Olympics.
But Okoye, his inexperience telling with his inconsistency, struggled in the meetings that followed, failing to record a valid mark at the Loughborough International, and throwing just over 52 metres at the Inter-Counties Championships.
He managed to turn things around in time for the England Under-23 Championships, winning with 61.05m and booking his place on the team for the European Under23 Championships – the competition that he and coach John Hillier had set as their main target for the year.
But little did he know that just days later he would, almost by accident, achieve one of his lifetime goals. At the McCain Jumps and Throws Fest in Hendon, Okoye smashed the British record with a throw of 67.63m, breaking the world age-19 best in the process.
Already by this point of the season, men’s discus throwing had witnessed unprecedented depth in Great Britain, but Okoye’s performance was the icing on the cake. It proved to be the perfect confidence boost for the European Under-23 Championships, which he won one week later with 60.70m.
Okoye had already surpassed his coach’s target for the year and it was only mid-July. Sitting in the top five in the 2011 world rankings and with nothing to lose, Okoye headed to the World Trials – and for the discus, unlike any other year, it really was a trial – in an attempt to make the British team for the IAAF World Championships in Daegu.
Once again Okoye threw less than 60 metres and finished fifth at the Trials. Another sub-60-metre performance in a throw-off against Brett Morse at Crystal Palace was Okoye’s final chance, and he ended his season there and then.
It is a scenario that just 12 months prior would have seemed unbelievable – a young thrower smashes the British discus record but misses out on making the national team as three other Brits had the ‘A’ standard. But far from being distraught at not making the team, Okoye is more than happy with his achievements in 2011.
“At the start of the year my targets were set and I reached those targets,” he said. “The World Champs was a ‘bonus’ target, but when it came down to it I think it could have been more of a hindrance had I gone there. I wouldn’t know how I’d throw because I wasn’t a consistent enough discus thrower.
“By not going to the World Champs, I was able to start my winter training on August 20, so I’m having a very long winter to get ready for next year,” added Okoye. “I’m pleased with how my season went and I wasn’t at all disappointed with not going to the World Champs.”
Morse, Carl Myerscough and UK champion Abdul Buhari were instead selected for Daegu, having all broken 65 metres – a mark that in any other season over the past decade would have topped the British annual rankings.
“The standard has been incredible, and it’s been a pleasure to compete against these guys,” said Okoye of the sudden rise in quality. “Brett Morse, for example, is just 22 and has thrown really far. I think he’s been a bit overlooked and people don’t realise just how good he is. I’m really pleased for him and I anticipate big things from him next year as well. Abdul (Buhari) is a bit older, but he has got a lot in him. There’s also Chris Scott, another young thrower who has the ‘B’ standard for the Olympics. And now we’ve got another youngster, Nick Percy, who’s thrown over 62 metres with the junior discus. I think the health of the discus in this country is really good and I anticipate lots of high achievers in the years to come.
“I really don’t know why there’s been a sudden upturn,” added Okoye. “The Olympics will have something to do with it, obviously, and it may have had the same effect on other people as it’s had on me – raising your mind-set in order to do something special. But it’s not just the discus. We’ve had people like Holly Bleasdale and Sophie Hitchon breaking British records. I think everyone is just really inspired by the Games coming to London.”
For Okoye, the 2012 Olympics inspired him when making the huge decisions to defer his entry to Oxford University and drop his first love, rugby. But he says doing well in London is just as much about paying back everyone who has helped him.
“It would be great for me personally to make it to London and achieve the goal I set out when I chose to take up the discus,” said Okoye. “But even more so it would be great for the people who supported me right from the start when they had no clue what I was capable of, and they believed in me. People like my headmaster from Whitgift (School in Croydon), he supports me all the way and has had blind faith in me. And of course my coach and training partners, especially Zane.
“But I no longer have the mind-set where I just want to get there,” he added. “Now, I want to do well there. We’ll see next year what happens, but I anticipate something big for myself.”
With two months of winter training already behind him, Okoye is well on his way to achieving his goal for next year. In a bid to improve his consistency, Hillier has increased the numbers of throws that Okoye does in training and he says it is already paying off.
Okoye will head into Olympic year poised to perform as well as possible, and he couldn’t be happier with the decision he made to focus on athletics. “Already in just my first year I’ve done things that other people have never done before,” he said. “I want to break every record there is to break and win everything there is to win.”
But when he sat down to watch the Rugby World Cup Final last weekend, did he feel a strong desire to one day return to the pitch?
“It’s a question for next September, but if I can achieve what I think I can achieve, then I’ll be set to keep throwing the discus,” he says. “But who knows what’s around the corner – I didn’t anticipate that I’d be doing this just a year ago, so who knows what I’ll be doing in another couple of years?”
Time will tell of course, but a successful campaign in 2012 could well be just enough to persuade British throwing’s most impressive physical specimen ever to stay in the sport.