Nigerian sprinter Divine Oduduru (Texas Tech University ) © Copyright
Feature

After NCAA heroics, rising star Oduduru now sees Doha on his horizon

It perhaps says much of the modern world that despite being the world’s fastest 200m sprinter in 2019 – Divine Oduduru perhaps remains better known for his hilarious and entertaining post-race interviews at the 2013 World U18 Championships.

Back then the wide-eyed and charismatic 16-year-old Nigerian sprinter became a YouTube sensation thanks to his candid and heart-warming interviews in which he memorably referenced the 200m final as being “a deadly day.”

Some six years on Oduduru, now a third year student-athlete at Texas Tech University, still remains the same outgoing, relentlessly positive guy he always was. But rather than be best known for his amusing interviews, today he prefers that his feet do all the talking – and as current performances have shown he is on track to realise his wish.

Last year he blitzed to the NCAA outdoor 200m title and earlier this year scorched to a 20.08 indoor clocking in Lubbock, Texas, which elevated the 22-year-old to third on the all-time lists behind Frankie Fredericks and Elijah Hall-Thompson.

Since then, Oduduru secured the 2019 NCAA Indoor 200m crown but it was in Waco, Texas in April when the powerfully-built sprinter perhaps enjoyed his finest day so far when sprinting to a pair of stunning PB’s – a 9.94 100m followed by a blistering 19.76 Nigerian record in his favoured 200m.

“When warming up that day my coach told me I had what it takes to run fast. I did my warm up, my body felt great and the weather felt great but then to run 9.94, I was so happy. I ran to my coach and hugged him. At first I did not want to run the 200m but because the coach has given me the programme, I had to get ready. To then run 19.76 was amazing.”

Humble beginnings

Growing up the youngest of 10 children in abject poverty in the small rural village of Ovworo near the town of Ughelli in Southern Nigeria, life was a grind.

Each day he had to help out his father on the small farm to cultivate crops. The work could be arduous and as the sprinter recalls of his younger days: “Life was really tough. For everyone it was a struggle to survive. We walked to and from school and some days I didn’t eat, I was starving. It is only when I came home to the farm I get something to eat like Garri (a flour grain).”

Yet determined to one day make himself a better life he vowed as a youngster to one day haul himself out of the poverty trap.

“I knew that I wanted to create a platform for myself and I was determined not to end up the same way as others,” he explains. “This was a big motivation. I told my mum (Christiana) that I will not go to school in Nigeria and that someday I will travel. She always believed in my dreams.”

First national team appearance at 16

First realising he had a sprinting talent as a child by successfully running away from the trouble he frequently found himself in, Oduduru formally started sprinting at high school.

He worked hard at his craft and aged 16 enjoyed a dream international debut by winning the African U18 100 and 200m double in his native Nigeria.

Four months later he competed at the World U18 Championships in Donetsk and overnight he became that international YouTube star for a video interview that has attracted more than 400,000 views.

“Looking back at the interview; it was all from the heart,” reflects Oduduru. “I was just a young boy excited and privileged to represent my country. 

“African people were born great with a great determination. I wanted to fully express myself and how I felt at that moment. I am proud of that interview.”

On the track, however, he fell short of his goals. Eliminated in the semi-finals of the 100m and placing sixth in the 200m final in 21.37 – slower than the PBs he set in the heats (21.24) and semi-final 21.13 -left the Nigerian frustrated.

“I was really hoping for a medal but I used that experience as a motivation for doing better at the 2014 World Juniors (U20 Championships).”

World U20 success

Oduduru was good to his word and 12 months later he collected a 200m silver medal at the World U20 Championships in Eugene – clocking a wind-assisted time of 20.25 in the final.

“It was a really wonderful moment to be number two in the world,” he explains. “But everyone wants to be a champion so I made many changes to improve.”

Oduduru moved to Sapele and switched coaches to join Daniel Etse, former coach to 2013 World Championship 200m silver medallist Blessing Okagbare, and so his exciting progression continued. 

In 2015 he grabbed the African U20 100m and 200m double and he climaxed his competitive year by blitzing to a personal best of 20.45 to win silver – just 0.03 behind Wilfried Koffi of Ivory Coast - at the All-Africa Games in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Still aged just 19, the 2016 campaign also proved memorable as he swept to 200m victory at the Nigerian Championships to qualify for the Olympic Games where he faced his idol, Usain Bolt, not once but twice.

 

Usain Bolt and Divine Oduduru after their 200m heat at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (AFP / Getty Images)Usain Bolt and Divine Oduduru after their 200m heat at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (AFP / Getty Images) © Copyright

 

After unleashing an inspired run to place second in a PB of 20.34 - just 0.06 behind the Jamaican sprint superstar – in his heat, a sore groin then hampered his performance in the semi-final. On this occasion, Bolt blasted to a 19.78 clocking while Oduduru placed seventh (20.59). Yet the experience proved unforgettable for the teenage sprinter. 

“It was like a dream come true for me, a real privilege. I didn’t say anything to him after the race (heat), I just gave him (Bolt) a hug.”

Adjusting to the collegiate circuit

Yet it was to be the Nigerian’s next move by taking up a scholarship at Texas Tech which has, arguably, proved the smartest decision of his athletics career so far.

“I’m not going to lie,” he explains. “This has been the best part of my life so far. It is something I’ll never regret. It is a real privilege and opportunity to be allowed to run for Texas Tech.”

Injuries marred his freshman year in 2016-2017 as his body took time to adapt to the new training regimen. However, inspired by a strong group of team-mates and a coaching team around him led by Calvin Robinson, whom he describes as “a father figure,” he came out firing in the 2018 indoor season.

Winning NCAA Indoor 200m silver in a time of 20.21 having earlier that season recorded a Nigerian indoor record of 20.18 filled Oduduru with a rising belief.

 

Nigeria's Divine Oduduru in the 200m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (AFP / Getty Images)Nigeria's Divine Oduduru in the 200m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (AFP / Getty Images) © Copyright

 

Outdoors he took this up a notch by setting a PB of 20.13 and later taking a 200m title at the NCAA outdoor championships in Eugene.

“It meant a lot to me (to win). I don’t just want say I was here (at Texas Tech). I wanted to make my mark. My coach has been able to create that platform. He has been wonderful to me, the team and the programme.”

After NCAA title defence, Doha next on the agenda

Hard endurance training in the winter months plus an extended run at the 4x400m have added further strength to Oduduru’s natural speed and the 2019 season is proving his finest to date.

But the most exciting part is the best could be yet to come. Later this week he hopes to defend his NCAA 200m title in Austin. Then he will look to target the Nigerian Championships followed by the World Championships in Doha.

Given his relative lack of senior international experience, it is hard to judge the Nigerian’s chance in Doha but given his performances so far it would be foolish to dismiss his chances. And the 22-year-old sprinter is not lacking confidence.

“I’m definitely thinking of a medal (in Doha) and I’m working towards that goal,” explains Oduduru. 

Away from the track his personal life has taken a jolt following the sudden death of an older brother in 2015 and two years later the loss of his father, Elijah.

Both incidents left a profound impact on the African’s life but he remains committed to his main motivation for starting athletics – which is beyond the pursuit of medals and PB’s.

“My main wish it to get my mum and my family out of poverty,” he says. “I’m just really grateful to be given this opportunity.”

Steve Landells for the IAAF