Two days after the indoor track and field state championships and just nine days after her 16th birthday, Western Tech sophomore Ogechi Uzoukwu suffered the most tragic loss of her life when her 10-year sister and best friend, Chiamaka, died of cancer.
The last time she spoke with her sister was the day before the Class 1A state championship meet. Uzoukwu knew it was bad when she got a text from her mom after she finished fourth in the 55-meter hurdles and 10th in high jump.
“She was rushed [to the hospital] the Monday before states, so I was thinking about it the whole time and I wasn’t really in my head. I mean, I wasn’t really in my right mind,” Uzoukwu said.
Chiamaka Goodness Uzoukwu died of Osteosarcoma on Feb. 23, and Ogechi Mercy Uzoukwu’s life hasn’t been the same since that day.
“It was horrible. It was hard to go through and watch, and for two years I endured that and I think that is what made my attitude bad the first year,” Uzoukwu said. ”I was really negative about all my life circumstances and I just didn’t see a positive light at the end, but there is a light and sometimes it may be bright, sometimes it may be dim, but there is still a light.”
That light came on for her on the first day of outdoor track season.
“My mom encouraged me to go back for track and I was like, ‘No.’ I didn’t think I would come back at all,” she said. “I was really, really sad. My sister, she died two days after [indoor] states, so it was really sad.”
The first day of outdoor practice was an emotional roller coaster.
“I didn’t realize that I was really coming back for track until I came back, and I was sad the whole day and I didn’t go to any of my classes. But at the end of the day, I went to practice and it was like nobody could tell that anything happened. I was just so happy,” she said. “It was such a big distraction, I couldn’t believe how much it worked.”
It worked so well that she picked up three new events — 100 hurdles, triple jump and pole vault — that she didn’t compete in as a freshman. She continued long jumping and went on to win Class 1A North Region championships in all four events.
“It was so exciting and it really didn’t matter to me to come in first. I really was more focused on [personal records], but I will take the first place, too. It was really, really great and it just fell into my whole mindset right now,” she said. “My mindset for this year is I want to make the best out of the worst year of my life, because this definitely has been the worst year of my life, but there has been great moments in this year, so I can’t really be too sad.”
She set personal records in the 100 hurdles (15.56), long jump (16 feet, 6 inches) and tied her PR in the pole vault (7-0).
Her long jump was over a foot farther than she jumped as freshman when she finished third at regionals and 11th at states. She said nailing the perfect jump is an incredible feeling.
“If feels like, I don’t want to say flying because that is too cliché, but it is like levitating,” said Uzoukwu, who lives in Randallstown and was born in Maryland to Nigerian parents.
She qualified for the Class 1A state championship meet in all four events and finished second in the 100 hurdles, fourth in long jump and fourth in triple jump in a personal-best jump of 35-3/4. She didn’t compete in pole vault because it was held the same time as triple jump.
Her 20 individual points helped the Wolverines win their third straight state championship with 106 points, beating out Smithsburg (92.5).
The most surprising event at states was the hurdles when she beat sophomore teammates Oluwatunmishe Olunuga (third) and Ariel Thomas (fourth).
“The hurdles was a real big shocker,” Western Tech coach Mark Reedy said. “We’ve already got a girl that was third in the state last year and to get second, third and fourth, that was pretty cool. But on that day, into the wind, a girl with that stretch stride, she is going to do great and she almost won.”
It’s that stride and her lack of fear that makes her unique and gives her the ability to compete in multiple events.
“She has got this weird ability that she’s not overly fast, but she’s got this stride that has served her in the jump and the triple jump and it’s worked out really well,” Reedy said.
As a freshman, Uzoukwu never looked like she would be the type of contributor she became, and she wasn’t comfortable with coaches Reedy and Clarissa Higgins.
“Honestly, freshman year I had a horrible attitude and I would like, be mean to [the coaches] and I wasn’t really that respectful towards them. But then something in me changed and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to try something new. I’m going have a better attitude about it and I’m not going to be rude to my coaches because they are only here to help me,’” she said.
Along with legendary former Woodlawn track coach Dick Estes, who occasionally helped her develop as the first girls pole vaulter in Western Tech history, she thrived in all of her new outdoor events.
Reedy couldn’t pinpoint her problem when she didn’t develop as a freshman when she competed in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay.
“She had a rare combination of being slow and not trying hard, but she matured a lot,” said Reedy, who had no idea about her sister being sick with cancer until Uzoukwu’s mom couldn’t pick her up after practice because she was at the hospital with Chiamaka. “As soon as she had a glimmer of success at the end of the season, that’s when things started to turn.”
Higgins also noticed a change in Uzoukwu late last season.
“I started to see the mental change in things from the end of the season last year, and this year it’s definitely because she is doing it for her sister,” Higgins said. “She definitely had the push from her sister, because her sister enjoyed it. So when her sister was still alive she would go home and talk to her about it and she started maturing a little bit last year and her mom would kind of find ways for her to kind of find peace with everything. And I think one of the funny things we joke about is that she became a plant mom, so it was something to take care of and take her mind things.”
Chiamaka wanted to run track, but the bone cancer didn’t allow it. That’s when her older sister came to the rescue.
“I used to say I run for my sister who can’t, but now I say I run for my sister who couldn’t,” she said. “She is my biggest motivator; she is the reason I do this.”
When she’s not competing in her trademark glasses, Uzoukwu, who also played JV volleyball, enjoys mingling with other competitors and frequently flashes her trademark smile.
“I am really just friendly with teams at every meet,” Uzoukwu said. “I just love when people are happy in track.”
Her bubbly personality isn’t lost on her coaches.
“It’s all the time,” Reedy said. “It’s so rare, but you get a lot of it here. She was friends with everybody.”
Reedy will have two more years to work with her and has lofty expectations.
“Give me a kid that has been through some adversity and we can do great things,” he said.
College aspirations are real when she graduates from Western Tech.
“I definitely want to run track in college,” she said. “If you would have asked me last year I wouldn’t have known because I was stuck in this negative sphere and I finally got out of that when I realized there is more to life than just track and there are more things that you can do and with a positive attitude and mindset comes positive outcomes.”
She also has plans to try the heptathlon.
“I have thought about it and I really want to do it,” she said. “It’s really cool and you get to do a lot of events [seven] and I really like that.”
In the meantime, she is going to continue to rely on the most influential people in her life, including younger brothers Chidike, who threw shot put and discus and played football and basketball as a freshman at Western Tech, and Chidiebere, who is at Deer Park Middle Magnet.
“They are my No. 1 supporters,” she said. “Even my brothers, they didn’t really talk to me because I talked to my sister a lot more, she was my best friend, so ever since I lost my sister, I’ve been talking to my brothers more, so they have been encouraging and so has my mom and my dad.”