With the previously postponed 2020 Olympic Games taking place in a land 13 hours ahead of the Eastern time zone and playing host to more than 11,000 athletes and 205 competing countries from July 23 to August 8, the two-week extravaganza can be overwhelming to keep track of.
There are two athletes from Fairfax County worth focusing on amid the frenzy: South County (’16) graduate and Team USA 4x400-meter relay runner Trevor Stewart, and Robinson (’12) graduate and Team Nigeria discus thrower Chioma Onyekwere.
‘I found myself noticing I’m more than I thought I was’ — Stewart’s trek to the Games
Stewart started running track and field as a freshman at South County. A former karate practitioner, he made the switch to running after sustaining an injury in middle school while grappling during a karate session that twisted a muscle in his back — an injury Stewart said still hasn’t resolved itself.
At South County, Stewart had a multitude of teammates — some who even went onto run at the collegiate level— who he said always made sure he did the right thing and who always believed he could do more than he was capable of. Track also became a passion at South County because it kept Stewart focused on his schoolwork, he said.
“If you can’t focus, you can’t run,” Stewart said.
Staying on the straight and arrow allowed for running track to become a reality for Stewart at North Carolina A&T alongside fellow South County teammate Morgan Knight. During his time with the Aggies, Stewart was part of the relay team that won the 4x400-meter relay during the 2021 NCAA Division I Indoor Track and Field Championships, and he ran his personal-best 400-meter race in 44.25 seconds during the 2019 NCAA Championships — good enough for second place that year.
Stewart qualified for the Olympic Games June 19 after finishing fourth in the finals at his second U.S. Olympic Trials with a time of 44.90 seconds. He said it wasn’t the placement he wanted to be in, but after looking up at the clock, he said he knew it was a good enough time to qualify.
The initial reaction to qualifying for the games and representing Team USA on the world’s biggest stage? “It was like, ‘OK, I made it,’ and I just went right on with my day,” Stewart said.
Stewart said he’s approaching the biggest meet of his life just like he would any other meet — it’s nothing anymore special than all his races up to this point for him, he said.
“It’s been a lot to deal with because usually I’m down to earth and very humble about everything,” he said. “I don’t say much about what I’m doing — for me, it’s just another meet.”
Going into his 4x400 relay event with the three other Team USA runners — Michael Norman, Michael Cherry and Stewart’s North Carolina A&T teammate Randolph Ross — Stewart said he still doesn’t know which leg he’s running as of July 19. He said he also can’t disclose his race strategy at the threat of competing runners figuring out how to mitigate it. However, Stewart said he’ll be satisfied about his race by how he executes each step, 100 and 150-meter split of the 400-meter race. Because of the work ethics of himself, Ross, Norman and Cherry, Stewart said Team USA can “win easily” as long as everybody does their part.
While he doesn’t have a specific pre-race routine, Stewart said he uses prayer and mediation to get his mind right on race days. Both help him feel more “in-tuned” with himself, he said.
“Meditation just helps me focus more so I’ll be able to execute my race model,” Stewart said. “For me, it’s more … ‘drop your shoulders, relax a bit and breathe.’”
Look for Stewart to be calm, cool and collected come Team USA’s first 4x400 race August 6.
Part mechanical engineer, part discus thrower Cioma Onyekwere is making a run for gold
Like Stewart, Onyekwere’s journey to Tokyo started on the track her freshman year at Robinson. However, the main purpose of the sport for her was to condition for soccer. It wasn’t until her junior year that she started discus under the tutelage of Beau Fay, Robinson’s throwing coach and former track and field athlete at the University of Maryland. There were also two Olympians on Robinson’s track and field staff during Onyekwere’s time with the Rams — Jim Barrineau competed in the high jump for Team USA in the 1976 Montreal Games, and Rob Muzzio, also a Robinson graduate, sported the decathlon for Team USA in Barcelona during the 1992 games.
“Working with two Olympians at Robinson — it was inspiring,” Onyekwere said. “It was really exciting to see people who kind of went through all the same steps we did in high school and got to that elite level.”
It was Fay, Onyekwere said, that helped her harness her natural talent as a discus thrower and drive her away from track events — as much as she said she liked hanging out with her sprinter friends — and toward field events all the way to a scholarship to the University of Maryland, just like her throwing coach. As a Terrapin, Onyekwere majored in mechanical engineering — she said she likes making crafts “come to life” with her hands.
As a discus thrower at Maryland, Onyekwere dazzled. She scored points for the Terrapins all four years, won five Big 10 conference medals, qualified for the NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships twice and set Maryland’s school record in discus and weight throw. Shortly after, Team Nigeria recruited Onyekwere to throw discus for them.
Now, she’s representing the west African country in Tokyo — wanting to make a name for Nigeria and “put it on the map,” she said.
Onyekwere, a dual-citizen, said she had the option to represent either Team USA or Nigeria. She opted to sport the Nigerian green and white because she said the country made her the woman she is today — Onyekwere grew up in Nigeria and didn’t move to the U.S. until she was 10, and goes back to visit the country every year. She also said Team Nigeria offers more of a family feel, while the U.S. team is more focused on “individualism.”
“From my culture in Nigeria … no one is just one person’s kid,” Onyekwere said. “Everyone in the community kind of shapes you into who you are today, and that’s kind of the aspect I’ve been able to take into my work, take into school and take into competing in track and field.”
Along with being a professional discus thrower, Onyekwere is a full-time product development engineer for Ford Motor Company in Detroit. Prior to working remotely in Virginia when the pandemic hit, she said she would wake up at 5 a.m., practice throwing for two hours before work, then return home after an eight-to-10-hour workday to lift and throw for two hours apiece before repeating the cycle all over again. She said she was able to continue a similar schedule of what she did at Maryland, only classes were replaced by work, as her professional discus career was an extension of her college track and field career.
“I had to really hone in a lot of my previous lessons learned as a student-athlete on how to work with time management, and really just balance everything,” Onyekwere said. “I also was doing a very rigorous workload with mechanical engineering while still competing at the highest level.”
Onyekwere said her expertise in physics helps her understand how exactly to throw the discus and how she’s going to get the best distance she can. For example, she said she’s figured out to not throw the discus too high because it’ll skyrocket to the ground faster as there’s more pull dragging it down.
Being back in the DMV training for Olympics since the start of the pandemic, Onyekwere said there’s been some good that’s came out of it, like having the ability to eat good seafood unlike in Detroit. On the flip side, two of her uncles passed away from COVID-19, which changed her drive for the Olympics, she said.
Closed gyms and the postponement of the July 2020 Games made training more difficult, Onyekwere said, and combined with her uncles’ passings, she said it became increasingly challenging to focus on her Olympic dreams. That’s when her other family members pushed and encouraged her to still shoot for her dreams, she said. This support, Onyekwere said, helped her break Nigeria’s national women’s discus record with a launch of 63.30 meters — also topping her previous personal best of 57 meters.
“What I really focused on during the 2020 season was focusing on the things I can control — which is obviously working on technique,” Onyekwere said. “I think pounding down on that, 2020 really helped shape me for 2021.”
Onyekwere’s highs and lows over the last year-and-a-half likely makes relaxation a meaningful time to decompress. She said the day before her meets, she likes to play video games on her Nintendo Switch — namely Pokémon and Super Smash Brothers. Paralleling Stewart, Onyekwere uses a mindfulness technique similar to meditation to get her mind right before competition: visualization. Specifically, she said she visualizes her throws, how she wants to start and the end result she wants.
There are multiple end results that would make Onyekwere satisfied with her Olympic performance, she said. First, she wants to break her personal best of 63.30 meters. Second, she wants to up the ante with her Nigerian national record and go for the all-Africa record, which is just .70 meters farther at 64 meters. As far as placement, she said she wants to qualify for the finals, be on the podium and bring some hardware home for Team Nigeria.
Onyekwere’s quest for gold will begin July 31 with the qualification rounds of the women’s discus throw.
On days where Stewart or Onyekwere aren’t competing, there are two more Fairfax County athletes to keep an eye on. Andrew Seliskar, McLean native and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (’15) graduate, will swim for Team USA in the 4x200 relay. Lucas Kozeniesky, Robinson High School (’13) graduate will represent Team USA in rifle shooting — 10-meter air rifle from the three position.
Although blessed with physical gifts, it wasn’t easy to be on the cusp of competing at the grandiose sports stage that is the Olympics, Stewart and Onyekwere said. They both shared words from the wise for aspiring Olympians about how to get to their positions.
Stewart said getting “comfortable with being uncomfortable” is imperative because the workouts only get harder as you reach the professional level. But on the track, it’s OK to let loose a little, he said.
“I would say just submerge yourself in it, stay focused and have fun with it,” Stewart said. “That’s the main thing.”
Onyekwere said having a good support system along with listening to the body’s governor tells us our limitations is crucial. She had to miss out on her duties as a bridesmaid for one of her friend’s weddings so she could compete in Nigeria’s Olympic trials this year, which is something she said Olympians-in-training have to be able to do.
“Be willing to make those hard sacrifices in order to meet your end goal,” Onyekwere said. “It really sometimes takes just straight tunnel vision.”