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Imaobong Uko, the twinkling little star of Nigerian athletics

The 17-year-old Akwa Ibom indigene’s rise to stardom actually began when she defeated

It is said the future of the world belongs to the youth and it is from the youth and not from the old that the fire of life will warm and enlighten the world. This indisputable statement has found expression in the intriguing story of Nigeria’s fast rising queen of the track, Imaobong Nse Uko.

Before now, not many people were aware of the huge potential in the young athlete but her commanding performances at the just concluded World Athletics U-20 Championship in Nairobi, Kenya where she sprinted to three gold medals in three different events have shot her to international limelight.

The 17-year-old Akwa Ibom indigene’s rise to stardom actually began when she defeated older and more experienced athletes to win the 400m race at the 2018 National Sports Festival Abuja in a personal best of 52.36s when she was just 14 years.

Before then, she had won the 400m race at the Akwa Ibom Youth Sports Festival in 2018, a year after she finished in the second position in the same competition. In addition, she was the 2019 Nigerian U-18 Champion in the same event.

At the 2020 Edo National Sports Festival, Imaobong proved her victory at the 2018 edition in Abuja was not a fluke as she successfully defended her NSF title and recorded a new personal best of 51.70s. Apart from the 400m gold, she also anchored Team Akwa Ibom to win the Women’s 4x400m relay.

Based on her scintillating performance in the ancient city of Benin, Imaobong was selected to join Team Nigeria on a training tour to the United States ahead of the just concluded Tokyo Olympic Games.

After the camping in the USA, she returned home to place third behind Patience Okon George and Knowledge Omovoh at the 2021 Nigerian Athletics Championships and Olympic Trials to secure her place in the Tokyo Olympics squad.

At Tokyo Olympics, she was part of Team Nigeria’s Mixed 4x400m quartet comprising of Emmanuel Ojeli, Samson Nathaniel, and Patience Okon-George that set a new African Record of 3:13.60 to finish 5th in their semi-final race. The quartet has now set its sights on qualifying for next year’s World Championships in Oregon.

As stated earlier, Imaobong’s big breakthrough came at the just concluded world U-20 Championships in Nairobi where she inspired Team Nigeria to four gold medals and three bronze to place third on the overall medals table.

In Kenya, she ran the second leg of the mixed 4×400 metres relay alongside Chidera Nnamani, Uko, Opeyemi Deborah Oke and Bamidele Ajayi and won the event in a Championship record time of 3:19.70.

Inaobong claimed gold in the women’s 400m events in 51.55 seconds — a new personal best — to further extend her record as the fastest U-18 athlete in the world in 2021 and the 17th fastest in the Nigerian all-time list.

It is also pertinent to know that she went to the championships as the fastest among the contenders following the 51.70 seconds she ran to win the gold at the National Sports Festival in Edo State.

For her third gold medal in Nairobi, she also motivated the women’s x400m team to win gold in a time of 3.31.46 seconds on the final day of the world youth championship.

By her performances in Nairobi, Imaobong became the fourth Nigerian woman to win gold at the World Athletics U-20 Championships.

She followed in the indelible footsteps of Folashade Abugan who won gold in Poland in 2008; Fatimah Yusuf in 1990 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria and Olabisi Afolabi in Lisbon, Portugal in 1994.

Speaking on the petit runner’s outstanding performances, coach Daniel Umoette who discovered her in 2017 in Akwa Ibom during the state’s youth games, said immediately he unearthed the ‘raw diamond’, he had her transferred to Uyo, the state capital where she lived with the state sports commission’s secretary.

The athletics coach emphasized that Imaobong’s achievements are not accidental as he said so much energy, time and resources have gone into grooming her to the height she has attained for now.

“I started coaching her in 2017. That was before the National Sports Festival in Abuja. As a matter of fact, she was discovered during the Akwa Ibom Youth Games and I have been coaching her since then.

“I must appreciate her parents who were gracious enough to release her to us. We were almost strangers then but they allowed her to live with the secretary of Akwa Ibom sports commission who also acted as her godmother.

“Training her was not easy because she was going to school. While I coached others in the day, I coached her in the evening whenever she returned from school.

“The good news is that based on her outstanding performances, she has been awarded a scholarship by Baylor University in Texas, USA. I will be working with her new coach to monitor her progress. There will also be exchange programs,” he said.

On her part, Imaobong told Trust Sports that she is very excited with how things are turning out a few years after she was discovered during the youth games.

“I am happy that things are working out well and I thank God for the progress made so far. I come from a riverine area in Ibeno local government area where I used to help my parents to catch crayfish.

“I am equally grateful to my parents and my coaches who are keeping me on my toes. I look forward to having a successful career in athletics,” she said.

It is said that big things often come in small packages. Imaobong may not have the imposing physique of her predecessors like Falilat Ogunkoye-Osheku, Charity Okpara and Fatima Yusuf, but what she lacks in size, she obviously has in abundance in her inner strength to attain more feats for herself and Nigerian athletics.

Moreover, with the Olympics experience attained at the age of 17, there is no doubting the fact that Imaobong who will be 21 at the time of the next Olympics Games in Paris will definitely be a strong contender for a podium appearance.


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