“When faced with obstacles, we have to choose how we’re going to make it through.”
By Janet Reynolds
Some people see a hurdle on a track and think “obstacle.” Olutoyin Augustus-Ikwuakor sees opportunity.
Those looking for proof of that mindset need look no further than her recent bid: Augustus-Ikwuakor, or “Coach Toyin,” who coaches track and field and works in the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Exeter, returned to competition in an attempt to represent her native Nigeria at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. This despite the fact that at 35 and as the mother of a toddler, she would be entirely forgiven if the only running she did was around her home, chasing little Haiven.
This was Augustus-Ikwuakor’s second go-round at the Olympics. She represented Nigeria in 2008 in Beijing, China, where her time of 13.34 seconds was not fast enough to qualify her for the 100-meter hurdles semifinals. (Although Augustus-Ikwuakor is an American citizen, athletes are allowed to compete for their native countries.) She sat out the 2012 Olympics in London. Married to Akobundu Ikwuakor, himself a hurdler and runner, she was pregnant.
But Augustus-Ikwuakor never really hung up her track shoes. She coaches by example, getting out on the track with her team every day. Even Augustus-Ikwuakor, though, recognizes there’s a big difference between running drills with a high school team and prepping for the Olympics.
“I’m a practical person,” she explains. “Practicality kept telling me, ‘Exeter keeps you too busy. You know what it’s like in the summer time. You’re 35. Really?’
“None of those reasons really mean I can’t do it,” she says. “It just means it’ll be harder.”
The strict training regimen and the dream itself are also teachable moments for Augustus-Ikwuakor — and she loves the metaphors inherent in working hard at something such as hurdles. “At the beginning I just liked that I was good at it,” she says, recalling her early years with the sport. “Kids don’t know what they can be good at, so when they’re given something that they get validation for, they tend to cling to it.
“Now what I love so much about the hurdles, track and field, and athletics in general, is how it translates into everyday life,” she says. “You can’t run around the hurdles or you get disqualified. If you run too far to one side you can hurt others. There is only one way to attack a hurdle and that’s with force and straight through.”
In other words, it’s just like life. “We teach them to run the hurdles, not jump the hurdles,” she says. “It’s not about avoiding it but going through it. I love that. That’s something I preach to my kids.
“When faced with obstacles, we have to choose how we’re going to make it through,” Augustus-Ikwuakor continues. “I have students all the time who run up to a hurdle and stop. Quitting and running around is never an option. I don’t care if you fall through it, if you kick it down — you have to go through it. Whatever you do, that’s how you run the hurdles. I think it sticks with them in athletics and with life.”
Augustus-Ikwuakor got into hurdles by way of her older sister. Her father took them to the track, where she watched her sister running the hurdles. Her dad suggested she give it a try. “I remember racing her and beating her,” Augustus-Ikwuakor says, adding that she had no real form. “I realized I could be good at this. Clearly, if my sister, who is really good at everything, is not as good as me somehow, this must be something I should really try for. I always looked up to her.”
Augustus-Ikwuakor, who moved to the United States with her family as a young child, was in middle school at the time, a place for field days rather than serious hurdle training. She ran track, but she didn’t get bona fide hurdle training until she was in high school. “I just played with it and did sprints,” she says of her middle school years.
Augustus-Ikwuakor wasn’t far into her high school years in Alabama, however, before she started making an impression. She was a track star, earning MVP honors on the Huntsville All-Metro team after winning four events, including the hurdles, at a meet. She continued competing at Penn State, and after graduation competed in a variety of African and world championships.
“The trials and tribulations of being an amateur athlete in track and field are too numerous to tell,” she says. “There were plenty of times I wanted to give up. I couldn’t. You’re not what you say every day. You’re what you do every day.”
Augustus-Ikwuakor began her comeback training two years ago. She competed indoors a bit but then was injured and couldn’t finish the indoor season. “I did win all my meets but not at a high level,” she says. “But I felt revitalized by it.”
She also felt she was getting the message to keep going. “If this is not a direction God wants me to take, he will slam shut the doors,” she says. “The door is opening so far so I feel there’s a greater purpose beyond this. I’m not sure what it is but I’m going to stay true to my purpose.”
Ever analytical, Augustus-Ikwuakor speaks dispassionately of her weaknesses in hurdling. Take, for example, her height of 5 feet 4 inches in a sport often dominated by people 6 feet and taller. “My biggest [weakness] right now is body positioning over the hurdles,” she says. “The effort it takes me to overcome a hurdle is more because of my height.” Hurdles are 33 inches high for women. “I just have to have more power to compensate.”
Fitting in her workouts during the academic year was no small feat, either. “It had to fit my Exeter schedule,” she says. Wednesday workouts, which were about three hours, included speed workouts on the track — hurdle drills and sprints — followed by weight room powerlifting. Thursday was a recovery day — running and stretches with perhaps some rudimentary isometric exercises. Friday was all about speed endurance; she ran 150 meters 12 times with short rests, followed by the weight room and some strength exercises compatible with the earlier endurance work. Saturdays were for focusing on the technical aspects of hurdles, followed by some medicine ball work for core and stability. Augustus-Ikwuakor took Sundays off, which was good because Mondays were for the “real strength workout. It’s a grueling day where you have to get your mind right,” she says of her runs up and down Shaw’s Hill.
Scheduling got a little easier this spring, when Exeter granted Augustus-Ikwuakor a partial sabbatical so that she could focus more on training and competing. She had until July to shave two-tenths of a second off her time and achieve the Olympic standard of 13 seconds flat in the 100-meter hurdles, by competing in various national and world championships. Based on her season best, she should have taken home the gold at the African Championships in Durban, South Africa, but she stumbled after hitting a hurdle, losing most of her momentum. She had two Olympic trials remaining and ultimately did not qualify for the Rio team. Posting to Instagram after the last trial, she wrote: “My journey is not about getting everything I set out to get, but learning and growing through the process.”
Grateful for the opportunity, she takes comfort in having put her whole heart into following her dreams. For Augustus-Ikwuakor, there was never a question about taking the risk. “When the opportunity came … for me to actually think seriously about trying to compete again, it almost felt like, ‘This is what you’re supposed to be doing,’ ” she says. “The time is now.”