On the finishing stretch of the 400 meters at the LSU Alumni Gold meet, senior Courtney Okolo knew something was different.
“I pushed myself on the first 200 like I never have before,” Okolo said. “So when I was coming down the backstretch I thought: ‘Either I’m really out of shape, or I’m running really fast.’”
Crossing the line, she looked up at the clock and breathed a sigh of relief. Okolo had clocked in at 49.71 seconds, making herself the first collegiate to run a sub-50. (This excludes Natasha Hastings, a member of the USA Olympic 4x400 meter relay team that won gold in 2008. She ran 49.86 seconds during her collegiate career at the USATF Championships, but it was not a collegiate meet.)
“I knew with the way training was going, I was capable of running a 48.6, so it came out almost right.” Okolo said.
With this run, Okolo now holds three of the top six fastest 400 times in collegiate history. She was named USATF Athlete of the Week on April 28 and remains on the list for the Bowerman Award.
Okolo’s success comes as no surprise to others. Her career began during the spring of her freshman year at Newman Smith High School in Carrollton, Texas.
“I knew by the second day of practice she was going to be a once in a lifetime athlete.” Okolo’s head high school track coach Tim Busby said.
Okolo had dreamed of being the next Carmelita Jeter, running the 100 meter dash in a USA uniform at the Olympics. Busby saw otherwise.
“We build our program around our 400 runners,” Busby said, “She had the speed and build for it.”
Busby was right — Okolo won 4A state titles in the 400 meters during her sophomore, junior and senior seasons and still holds the state record with a time of 52.4 seconds. Okolo was the “cheat code” to Newman Smith’s 4x400 meter relay, sneaking up from third place to seize first on the last stretch during the state championship her senior year.
Although she qualified for the Olympic trials in 2012, she chose to skip the trip and wait for the next opportunity.
Now, Okolo will be in contention to earn a spot on Team USA at the Olympic trials this July. She has even worn the USA uniform before. In March, Okolo competed as a member of the USA women’s 4x400 meter relay at the indoor world championships with Hastings, Quenera Hayes and former Longhorn Ashley Spencer. At third leg, Okolo clocked in with the fastest time of 50.71 seconds, earning her first USA gold.
“The world meet is like a business,” Okolo said, “Being in the presence of those amazing athletes was an eye opener to what I want in the future.”
Associate head coach Tonja Bailey will spend the summer training Okolo for the trials.
“I’ve been on three Olympic teams and the hardest part is making it through the trials,” Bailey said. “Those three days are really tough mentally and physically. She ran that 49.71 uncontested, so I think she can run faster against stronger competition.”
Okolo’s journey will continue this weekend at Big 12 Championships in Fort Worth. Leading up to the trials, Okolo has a goal for every meet ahead.
“At the Big 12 meet, I want to be consistent,” Okolo said, “I won’t be upset if I don’t run 49 seconds. I just want to execute my first 200 like I did at LSU. At regionals, I want to be able to run as fast as I can as easy as I can because that will be preparation for the prelims and semis of the Olympic trials.”