[Posted July 21, 2016] After a drought of 68 years, Uni will again be represented in the Olympic Games by 2007 graduate Barbara Nwaba, competing in the two-day, seven-event heptathlon in track & field.
Pictured above: Barbara Nwaba in competition
Uni grad Jeff Slade ‘63 caught up with Nwaba by telephone last week and provides this interview with the 2015 and 2016 U.S. Heptathlon champion:
Slade: So, you’re going to Rio! Tell me about that.
Nwaba: Yes, going to Rio. I’ll be competing August 12 and 13, so it’s a few weeks away, but I’m super excited and looking forward to what I’ve been fighting for over the last several years now, and I’m really looking forward to it.
Q.: So, is your great big family going?
A.: I think right now just my Mom is going to go. Obviously, my coaches, my boyfriend is coming, so we’ll be a small group, but there will be people there supporting me.
Q.: Are they having any trouble making arrangements, or is that all being handled?
A.: A little problem with the hotels. They’re pretty booked up, but hopefully that can be solved, and we have to navigate through where everything is being situated and how far am I going to be, things like that. But everything on my part is being handled by USA Track & Field.
Q.: Do you have any trepidation about going to Rio?
A.: No, we will have to deal with whatever we have to deal with there, so I will just be trying my best.
Q.: First, I wanted to ask you – you are one of six siblings. Have they all gone to Uni, or will they all have gone to Uni?
A.: Five of us went to Uni, and the youngest is actually going to Pali in the fall. She’ll be the only one not to go to Uni.
Q.: I see from doing some research that most of your siblings are athletes. Tell me a little about that.
My brother Alex, number two in line, did a little bit of cross-country, but he hated cross-country, and he never got to try track.
My brother David is the third, and he was a basketball star at Uni. He went to Hawaii Pacific for a year, came back and then went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. First year there, they won the Big West Conference title and went to the “Big Dance” [NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament], so he graduated a few weeks ago. Now he is working out, trying to get recruited, probably to play overseas.
My brother Victor also played basketball for Uni. Now he is at College of the Canyons. He just finished up there, so he is getting recruited right now to play at a university. My sister Precious did track, volleyball and basketball at University High. Eventually, she focused a lot of her efforts on basketball and tried to get a scholarship, but that didn’t work out so well, so she ended up going to Berkeley on academics.
Then, there’s my sister Jane. Who knows? She’s taller than me. She’s only 14, she’s about 5-10 1/2 right now, so whatever she wants to do, I’m sure she will be excellent at it. I’m looking forward to seeing what she ends up picking.
Q.: So, when you were at Uni, you did a bunch of sports, right?
A.: Actually, I only did track and cross-country.
Q.: You didn’t play basketball or volleyball?
A.: No, I tried out for the basketball team, but that was a big mistake for me. I found out I was not good at it. And I wanted to play volleyball, but coach really wanted me to build a base in cross-country, and I ended up being captain of both the cross-country and track teams, so that was my main focus.
Q.: How did you do in cross-country?
A.: I wasn’t too bad. I ran a 20-21-minute 5k, so that was decent.
Q.: So, in track, you were City Champion in the 300 m hurdles.
Q.: What else did you achieve at Uni?
A.: I was City Champion in the high jump also. I got second place for three years and then, finally, my senior year, I was first.
Q.: Tell me about your overall time at Uni. How did you like Uni?
A.: I loved Uni. I loved the location, running long runs down to the ocean. The beach is right there. It was close to UCLA, and you could hang out in Westwood. Eventually, my family moved closer to the Uni area, and it was cool being in that area. I loved the school, I loved the campus, the kids were great, and I still keep in touch with some of the teachers. I like to go back to visit, particularly to visit my track coach Kelly Aguda, and see the kids on the track team.
Q.: You must be quite an inspiration to them. You graduated from Uni in 2007 and went to U.C. Santa Barbara. Why did you end up going there?
A.: That was the one of only schools that contacted me after I filled out recruitment questionnaires on school Web sites, so it was them or Cal State Fullerton, but I really wanted to go to a U.C. [campus]. So once UCSB had me up there, and I saw how beautiful the campus was, and I really liked the track team, and I thought it was the best track in the world. All I had competed on were dirt tracks, and so I thought, I really want to be here. And I know my family wanted me to be in-state and not go out-of-state, as the first-born, so it was far enough for me and close enough for them.
Q.: When did you start doing multi-event competitions?
A.: Not until my sophomore year, when my current coach, Josh Priester, came to UCSB.
Q.: It seems to be an obvious choice, when you are running the hurdles and doing the high jump. Had you tried it in high school at all?
A.: No, I didn’t try it at all. I was always a multi-sport athlete, but I didn’t know what the heptathlon was.
Q.: You stayed on in Santa Barbara after you graduated from UCSB, and you’ve been coaching?
A.: Yes. I did a little coaching at a few high schools, then I started coaching at Westmont College about two years after college, and now I’m coach of the Santa Barbara Track Club’s Youth Track Club.
Q.: You have made amazing athletic progress over the last few years. What do you attribute that to?
A.: Time in the sport, awesome facilities to train year-round, really good weather – I can’t train in the snow! – and also my coach. He has just been so persistent, and I’ve really kept my mind on the path I’m traveling on, just perservering, getting through injuries and little set-backs. We go through the different events and keep attacking them. In the multis, we are not single-event athletes, we just have a few days on each event, and we have to take time to improve in each event. I’m getting stronger, I’m taking better care of myself as I get older. That has really helped me to improve the last few years.
Q.: You’ve set all your personal records in the past year!
A.: Yeah, it’s really crazy!
Q.: You were national champion in the heptathlon last year and again this month. Tell me about that.
A.: My first national championship was last year, and I remember after day one I was only 20 points behind Sharon Day-Monroe, and I had just had an awesome day, I couldn’t believe I was that high. The year before I had placed third. I definitely knew I was coming up in my events, so to be that close was great.
And then on day two I started off with a big personal best in the long jump that propelled me into first place, so from there it was like, oh man! Just hold on to this one. In the 800, I couldn’t let Sharon pass me by half-a-second, because I only had an eight-point lead, so I went out there and ran a personal best of 2:07.
It was amazing, and when I hit the line, I let our a huge yell. I just released. Oh my God, this is what I have been working for. So, coming into this year, I really tried not to put any pressure on myself. I knew I was defending champion from last year, but I didn’t want to put pressure on myself. All I really wanted to do was make the top three [to get on the Olympic team]. But I was a big accomplishment to finish first, and I feel grateful for that.
Q.: Well, you did great. I do want to talk about last year’s World Championships [in Beijing]. You had that terrible moment when you hit the second hurdle in the very first event and didn’t finish, so your competition was basically over. And yet you kept going, you did all the remaining six events [finishing 27th], and you even set some personal bests. How did you manage to do that?
A.: I don’t know. I was devastated. My first time on that kind of world stage, and things just went wrong. I took an extra step to the first hurdle. I usually take seven steps, but this time I took eight, and I ended up on the wrong leg. I tried to correct, and I just went down. It was just like, why? But at the end of the day, my coach came up to me, and he said it was a perfect opportunity for me to prepare for next year. So you’re going to be there next year, and this is going to get you ready for that moment. I got my head together, realized that this was not the end of the road, and I still had an opportunity to enjoy the moment, to enjoy being out there, remember why I was doing this, and so it was a great feeling to get personal bests in the long jump, shot put and javelin, and so from there I was encouraged. I still had a really good time, despite the fall, and then going through the following months and competitions and then finishing the race at the recent USA Championships, I was really happy.
Q.: And I guess the good news is that you weren’t injured when you hit that hurdle, so you could keep going. And then you competed in the pentathlon in the World Indoor Championships in Portland this winter, and you had a great competition. Tell me about that.
A.: I managed to get into that meet from my previous outdoor ranking, and for me it was an extra gift to be able to do that. I just decided to go out and have fun. It would be a completely different situation from the outdoor championships. And I was trying to enjoy it. And I was able to reflect on the outdoor Worlds and how I approached it and got so wide-eyed about everything, and in the Worlds I was just in my own little zone, and I was able to put together a 200-point improvement, and I really enjoyed being out there. [She finished fourth overall.]
Q.: You do better and better each time. What are your hopes for Rio?
A.: My biggest hope is for a huge personal best [her best so far is 6,500 points]. Execute, make sure I don’t let my focus waiver because of what someone else is doing. I would love to put a huge meet together.
I feel like I still have more in the tank, especially after the recent USA Championships, being only a couple of points off my all-time best [she scored 6,494], and there are parts that were missing, so I believe I can get myself to a big score and hopefully get onto that podium [for a medal]. Just going for it.
Q.: Well, if you get a personal best, you are very close to beating many of the medal contenders. I believe you can get them.
A.: Well, thank you.
Q.: I wanted to ask you about Brianne Theisen-Eaton [World Indoor Champion] and Jessica Ennis-Hill [2012 Olympic Champion and 2015 World Outdoor Champion]. You know them because you have competed against them. Fabulous athletes. Tell me about them.
A.: I competed against Jess only once, in the Gotzis meeting [28-29 May 2016 in Gotzis, Austria]. It was a good event for me, seeing these women that I was competing with on the world stage. Just being to take it all in, seeing their progression, seeing what they’re doing in their events was really a huge benefit for me. So, competing against the 2012 Olympic champion was huge.
And Bri and Ash [Ashton Eaton, Brianne’s husband and the reigning Olympic champion and World Champion in the decathlon] actually come to Santa Barbara to train, so I know them really well, and they are such nice people. And I see how hard they work. They are very humble, and they are also incredible competitors. So just being able to watch them, and learn from them. This camaraderie that we all have with each other is really great.
Q.: I wish you really good luck in Rio, and I want you to know that everyone connected with UniHi is rooting for you!
A.: Awesome! Thank you so much.
Thanks to Jeff Slade for reaching out to Barb on our behalf! Watch for Barb’s competition at Rio on August 12-13, the first two days of the Olympic track & field program.