“I FEEL LIKE PRACTICE for me is kind of like my escape,” says Courtney Okolo. “Throughout my whole life, regardless of what’s going on. When I go to practice, I’ll be OK because I can zone out and put my music in my ears.”
It has always been that way for the 26-year-old Texas alum. She says that working out for her is a “weird relationship,” explaining, “When I’m doing it, it’s like, ‘God, I can’t wait for this to be over.’ But I’m also, beforehand, looking forward to the challenge. Just like competing is hard but you look forward to the thrill of it. I feel the same way about practice.”
An Olympic gold medalist after her 4×4 leadoff leg in Rio, she still trains in Austin with her former college coach, Tonja Buford-Bailey, herself a 3-time Olympian.
Working alongside her is a rotating cast of world-class athletes that begins with longtime training mates/fellow Rio Olympians Ashley Spencer (400H bronze) and Morolake Akinosun (4×1 gold). New to the group this year are Kendall Baisden (’14 World Junior 400 gold), Ashley Henderson (’18 USATF 100 runner-up), Gabby Thomas (NCAA Indoor 200 champ) and Jamaicans Rushelle Burton (World Junior 100H silver) and Shiann Salmon (World Junior 400H silver).
With a training group like that, Okolo says, “for every workout, there’s a perfect person to train with. We all benefit from each other. Each day is an opportunity for me to compete with myself and do better than I did last time. In my training, I look forward to the challenge, even though it might suck sometimes. When I finish it and I know that I did my best, I know that it is something I’m proud of. I can’t wait to come back tomorrow and just do this.
“It’s a weird love-hate thing, but I feel like it’s more love than hate.”
The emotional refuge that track offers has been important lately, she says. First there was the pandemic—still raging in the Austin area. “Back in March and April,” she says, “we just took it day-by-day. We’d get to a track and they’d kick us out, so we’d just make it up as we go. Still, I feel like I’ve had good training despite all that’s been going on.”
But on May 25 came the death of George Floyd, a watershed event for the nation that heaped new trauma onto old for Black Americans. “Regardless of your race,” says Okolo, “that was a human being, and everyone should feel emotional about it… Everybody knows that this has always happened, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s wrong and it hurts.”
Coping—and training during this time—has been difficult. “I guess if you have tunnel vision and kind of just don’t think about it, then you can get through your day. But if you’re watching videos and you’re very involved in it, it’s hard not to be moved by it.”
So yes, for Okolo track is a necessary emotional refuge, these days especially.
She describes herself as a late starter in the sport. “My brother played basketball, my sister played soccer, and I didn’t like sports until high school. I always had little things that I did. I used to love to draw. Anytime I picked up a new hobby, I was good at it, but I guess I wasn’t always passionate about those hobbies. Then I found track.”
She had found her passion. She started working with Buford-Bailey her sophomore year at Texas, and under her tutelage twice set Collegiate Records (50.03 in ’14, 49.71 in ’16), won 4 individual NCAA titles at 400 (2 out, 2 in), as well as 4 long relay titles.
Of Buford-Bailey, Okolo says, “She’s watched me grow,” she says. “She knows exactly what she needs to say to me to get me to be able to do what I need to do. She understands us individually, so I feel like that’s been very beneficial for me working with her throughout the years.”
In ’18 Okolo won the World Indoor 400, but last season, she admits, was a struggle, although she placed 4th at USATF and won a WC relay gold for her work in the heats. She explains, “I’m always happy to make a team and I’m grateful for it—it could have been worse is basically what I’m saying. But I definitely have higher expectations. I feel like I’ve been struggling for a couple years and I’m just trying to figure out how to meet my expectations and really be where I know I could be at.”
She was eager to make amends this Olympic year. The postponement has stoked that. “I feel like I’m only getting more motivated, more hungry and more eager. I’m looking forward to another opportunity to really show what I’m capable of.”
With 5 straight years of global championships on the upcoming schedule, Okolo describes herself as “full speed ahead.” But when asked to tell where her drive comes from, she admits, “I really don’t know. I feel like most athletes don’t know—they just do.
“It’s a certain type of personality, where you won’t stop until you achieve something. Most athletes have that. Like, it’s gotta be a lot of things to try and stop me from doing what I know I’m capable of. It doesn’t have to be track. It just so happens that this is probably the thing I’m most passionate about. So it’s the thing that’s going to be the hardest to stop me in.”
Not that track is the only thing Okolo has going on. She has been crafting and selling her own greeting card line, explaining, “You go to the store and get a greeting card and it’s super generic.” So she went to Etsy, the online crafts marketplace, and when a friend graduated from dental school and Okolo couldn’t find the perfect card, she made one herself. It has taken off from there.
With 40 orders in the first two weeks from her own Etsy shop (OGGreetingCards), Okolo is plenty busy. “It’s just fun. I’m really not trying to make a whole job off of it. If I could, that would be cool, but right now it’s just something to do while I’m really not competing.”
Okolo looks forward to racing, hopefully in the Diamond League races later this year. “I mean,” she says with a laugh, “they’ve got to invite me, but I want to compete.”
Till then, she will keep training to be the athlete she knows she can be. “I don’t really like to talk about my goals too much publicly, but I definitely have some times that I want to run and some medals that I want to win. Pretty much the same thing that most athletes want. I really want to be proud of myself.”