‘Everything Full Force’
As she waited for her mother to pick her up after school, ninth grader Chioma Okonkwo watched the track team practice. The coach noticed her and asked if she’d like to join them. Although dressed in black leggings, a Forever 21 tank top and high-top Converse sneakers, Okonkwo ran a few laps.
Then the wind sprints began. Okonkwo ran so fast that the impressed coach asked her to join the team on the spot. She had but one request: “Bring real running shoes next time.”
As a freshman at Murrieta Mesa High School in Riverside County, California, Okonkwo made varsity. Two years later, she became the Inland Empire 400-meter champion. The following year, Okonkwo took the 200- and 400-meter crowns.
Today, Okonkwo, B.S. CEE ’23 and a master’s degree student in building sciences, competes against some of the fastest women in the world as a member of the USC track and field team. This year, Okonkwo matched her personal best in the 100 meters before an injury prematurely ended her season. She dreams of participating in the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.
As ambitious off the track as on it, Okonkwo envisions one day launching her own architectural firm to oversee major infrastructure projects in Nigeria, India, and other developing countries.
“I want people to remember me as someone who just did everything full force, even if it was going to be hard,” said the American-born Okonkwo, who could represent the United States, Great Britain or Nigeria as an Olympian, since her mother was born in England and her father hails from Nigeria. “I want to succeed so badly.”
Her tenacity, perseverance and smarts have allowed her to do just that, despite the many hurdles she’s faced along the way.
Growing up, her family struggled financially. With her father stranded in his native Nigeria when his employer refused to pay him, Okonkwo, her mother and two brothers bounced between friends’ and family members’ homes for years. When her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and lost her job, their situation further deteriorated. Still, Okonkwo rarely despaired — she said her faith and close family ties sustained her. In time, her love of sprinting would also give her strength.
After her stellar high school career, she was heavily recruited by Duke, Stanford and UCLA, among others. However, Okonkwo decided to become a Trojan because of USC’s academic and athletic excellence.
The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out most of her first year. An injury sidelined her for the bulk of her sophomore year, when the USC women’s track and field team won the NCAA national championship. In her junior year, Okonkwo nearly qualified for the NCAA finals in the 100 and 200 meters.
“Chioma has the drive to be great,” said Carmelita Jeter, former assistant sprints coach at USC. “She always has a smile on her face and is always motivating her teammates.”
Whatever happens, Okonkwo said becoming a Trojan was among the best decisions she’s ever made.
“My experience has been phenomenal,” she said.