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Marilyn Okoro

Marilyn Okoro
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Name: Marilyn Okoro
Sport: Track & Field
Role: Olympian & Coach
Nationality: British
Date: Jun 2016

Marilyn Okoro is a British track and field athlete with an impressive CV.  A two time Olympian, World Championship Medallist and European Championship medallist, Marilyn is up there with the best of British athletes.  Her main event being 800m, Marilyn also has impressive records in the 400m, 4x400m and the 1500m.

In 2012, despite being British Number 1, holding the British 600m record and achieving the Olympic Qualifying standard 4 times, Marilyn’s place on the GB Squad for her main event of 800m was overlooked thanks to the then Head Coach, Charles Van Commenee.  After experiencing the cruel side of sport and the ‘cold’ and ‘aggressive’ demeanour of said Head Coach, Marilyn has since moved over to Florida with new coach Johnny Gray.

Interviewing Marilyn has been one of the highlights of creating the FCN.  As a track & field coach and fan who has followed Marilyn’s career for a number of years, I can honestly say she is one of the most inspiring athletes I have met.  Not only is she powerful and graceful on the track, but inspirational, humble and always smiling off it.  In her interview, Marilyn shares her stories of her career, the incredibly unfair incident in 2012 and her ambitions to become a coach once retired.

So far I am having an extremely strange season.  It is a complete flip of what 2012 was.  By this time then, I had run the ‘A’ standard [Olympic Qualifying Time] 3 or 4 times and was feeling super confident. [I haven’t run that time as of yet now].  I have actually had great training, but unfortunately the indoor season didn’t go to plan and I had to pull out because I hurt my Achilles.  So it has been an up and down season so far.  I am very under raced and I am someone who likes to race a lot.  I have only had 2 outings so far and I am off to Jamaica tomorrow to race as well which will be the first big race that I will have.  I am having to take my confidence from my great training rather than races at the moment.

Obviously it is Olympic Year and everyday since the end of London 2012 everyone has been on the ‘Road to Rio’, which is definitely something I am aiming for.  I will do everything in my power to make sure I am there, but as I saw personally with me in 2012, anything can happen in an Olympic year!

I would love to go to the Europeans and will do everything in my power to get there – I need to put selection in to my own hands, but after my injuries, I don’t know if I have enough time….so we shall see in a few weeks!

The problem is that because of my injury and trying to race against the clock with regards to getting ready in time, I am still in very heavy training so I haven’t competed in the 1500s or 400s as I would normally – because i lost that opportunity in the early season.  I know my speed is really good and I have run some excellent times in training, but for me, the 800 is my main event so I need to find my rhythm in that rather than attempt some 400m’s.  Hopefully I will some opportunities with to run some 400’s and put down a good time, but the depth in the UK right now is so good.  All I can do is put my best out there and if I earn selection that will be amazing!!  I am still working hard, there’s still a few weeks yet, its a strange season for everyone

I remember at the beginning of 2012 someone saying to me that Olympic years are such a strange year and it really is.  Anything can happen, so I am staying optimistic, focussing on what I am doing and trying to make sure that I am ready on the day.  It really doesn’t matter what you do around it as long as o the trials you get it right.  So that keeps me going!

I have literally just had to face everything head on and not shy away from anything.  I always tell everyone that I am a kind of nomad; I have moved homes so much throughout my life and love travelling. I am quite an escapist anyway and so once I eventually had resolution with parting with my coach  [in the UK] at the time and everything after 2012, moving to the States I was just in this euphoric excitement!  I didn’t really think about it too much, I just wanted to do it, do or die!  I packed up my stuff, got out of there and had my savings left over.  The first 6 months was a world wind.

I came out planning not to race that year, but things went really well…I ended up running 2:01 and made the team for the World Championships! [2013].

The next year my coach [Johnny Gray] then relocated to Florida [we were based in California originally] which was great – at UCF.  So it was a fresh start for the whole group and that was when I really started to learn his programme.  People always say it takes a couple of seasons to really adapt to a new coaching regime and it really has.  It has also exposed a lot of weaknesses in myself both physically and mentally as I was ultimately learning a new way to run.

I literally just had to deal with everything that came along and stay positive, event though at times I just wanted to leave and go back home.  I just wanted to see it through…I now had a coach that had faith in me and he was very patient.  He of course gets emotional and frustrated at times, but he just wants us to believe in the programme and respect him.  I have had to humble myself the last few years and forget everything I thought I knew.  The older you get the more scared you get!

I don’t know how I have lasted so long out here, but its getting better!  I have turned a corner and know I have made the right decision.  I can have a few more healthy years in the sport – you do have to go through some tough times to appreciate the good times!

I remember training with her saying ‘Donna, I will never last as long as you!’.  Then I met my new coach and he retired at 41.  You do see a lot of older athletes out here, you are only as old as you feel literally in track!

They always say they know when you really want to hang up your spikes and I am not bored of it yet.  I would be doing myself a disservice to retire so soon.

It was the most surreal year of my life.  The Olympics in your home town was major!  The lead up was great, I was running out my skin, churning out 1:59s like it was nothing.  Unfortunately I got it wrong at the trials, but I have seen people get it wrong at the trials before and they still made the team!  The worst thing about not getting chosen for my main event [800m] was the way everything was handled, the way I felt I was treated, like I was just chucked to the side like garbage.  It affected me a lot mentally and affected myself worth and all that stuff.  I walked away thinking I wasn’t good enough.  But I know now that wasn’t true, I had to do a lot of work on myself and put things into perspective.  Let me explain what happened…

It was blown up in the media and they blew up this big thing between me and Charles Van Commenee.  I had very little to do with him up until this point.  He was someone that I personally didn’t feel comfortable around because he just had this dictatorial attitude and walked around with his chest puffed out and I am not a confrontational person until I feel very passionately about something.  Two days before the British Olympic Track & Field trials in June 2012, I remember that I was named in the European team for the 800m and the 400m [The European Champs are held only a couple of weeks before the Olympics].  I thought it was weird that I had been named for both because I didn’t really need to do that 800m [because I had already qualified in the 800m for the Olympics and would be exhausted if I did that event at the Euro’s].  All I really wanted to compete in at the Euro’s was the 4 x 400m relay.  Charles told me I was not allowed to run any 400m relays until I had improved my 800m times – even though I had achieved 4 A standards [Olympic Qualifying times].  The Europeans were a great chance to just do the relay and the rest from my main event of 800m.

So one day in June 2012, I was having physio with Neil Black [who is now the UKA Performance Director in place of Charles] when Charles came into the room and demanded “You…come and see me outside.”  It was no way to talk to someone, but he isn’t the best with people skills.

My coach had text him earlier asking if I could just do the 4 x 400m relay and Charles had a real issue with it.  He was very stressed.  Normally his demeanour with me was quite nice as we didn’t really interact that much but then he was very serious and cold.  He was swearing saying ‘What the F*** is going on.  Why don’t you want to the 800m?”  I was explaining myself, saying I needed rest, I was happy to run the 400m if I had to, but I was never going to qualify or the 400m for the Olympics, so why can’t he just name me in the 4 x400m relay.  But Charles doesn’t really like when people outsmart him.  He became very aggressive and I didn’t really like it.  I get very anxious anyway leading up to races and I was leaving for Birmingham [where the trials were being held] that afternoon.  I just thought ‘i don’t really need this’.  I wanted to end the conversation which he didn’t like.  I just remember it ending with me being very upset, I didn’t like the way he was talking to me.  He had no respect for me as he talked to me like I was garbage and it didn’t end well at all.

I went along to trials and after my heat he came up to me and said his awkward way of trying to apologies without actually saying sorry and tried to explain himself.  But I really didn’t want to talk to him to be honest.  That was the only major falling out we had.

After that, I felt like he took his revenge and show me who was boss.  He called me telling me I wasn’t in the Olympic team for the 800M [event though I was British Number 1 and achieved Olympic Qualifying 4 times] and he seemed so happy about it.  I spoke to another coach afterwards who was telling me second hand that the plan was I was going to go to the Olympics as part of the team on the 4 x 400m but I wasn’t going to get to run.  It felt so surreal…I’m going to the Olympics, but not for my event, for an event that I haven’t even touched this whole season.  It was basically Charles’ way of showing me who was in control…which I think is disgusting to be honest.  No one should have to go through that.

I of course appealed the decision, but the whole process of appealing goes straight back to the people that didn’t select you in the first place – were is the neutral ground?!  It makes no sense and I wasn’t chosen.  In fact, for the women’s 800m, they only took one athlete rather than the three athletes who all had the A standards, they chose the one athlete who had achieved the B standard [a slower time].  There was a male athlete in a similar situation to me as he had also messed up the trials…but his appeal was accepted and he made it on to the team!  It was such a shame, but British Athletics have to stand together and they made that decision and that was that.  It was very disheartening and difficult to go but I needed to rise above it.  I wasn’t going to let them end my career or spoil my future.  I felt like it was going to be a situation that was very hard to swallow.

I don’t really have a lot of memory from it, I have blocked out a lot of it, I think I do that subconsciously.  It was quite traumatic.  Home was 20 mins away and the amount of times I just wanted go home, but I needed to stay to be a team member.  I wanted to use that time as best I could and to be part of that experience because it will never happen again in my life time.  It was something that really scarred me and took me a really long time to get over, I had so much anger to let go of.  It was an introduction to the politics of sport.

All of this drives me to want to be a coach and help prevent that scenario happening to anyone again.

It has a major impact on the team dynamics.  The head of any team are either setting out to be a boss or a leader.  I think how I differentiate it is a boss takes respect where as a leader earns it.  When they earn respect, what comes along with that is trust.  For any team to work cohesively, there needs to be a huge element of trust with all the team members and that trickles down to the coaches, the medical team, the athletes etc.  So if someone has a dictatorial leadership style, it generates a lot of mistrust and division.

Some people are very overt about not liking that leader and some smile to his face but behind his back say they don’t like them.  That’s not nice and it causes too much division.  Essentially you want to be one unit and you want there to be harmony and piece so that team moral needs to be happy.  When a leader is dictatorial there is massive lack of respect.  Some people will do well and thrive in that environment, but the majority wont.

I don’t know the number to be honest, but clearly not enough! I know the presence of women was not great.  I am trying to think of Team GB as a whole, in athletics there were maybe 1 or 2 coaches and a few admin staff.  Generally it’s not a high number and the few female coaches that I know, I know its such a hassle for them to have their voce heard and be taken seriously.  It is predominately male coaches but there are a lot of very successful female coaches and there is a massive need for them!  However, having someone like Charles Van Commenee as head coach was always going to make that difficult.  It is something that I am passionate about and I hope to see it changing in the future.  Out here there is a lot of female Head Coaches, we can do just as good a job if not better!

I am one of a few ambassadors, the company is only a year old and was founded by Alex Paske who is super passionate about increasing female participation in sport.  We go visit schools, academies, clubs and basically we worked with the young children and hopefully inspire and be role models to them.  I love my work with them, it is so rewarding and inspiring and motivates me to keep going.  The questions that you get just take you back to why you started and seeing someone trying to start their journey is wonderful.  I give a talk, answer some questions and then later on deliver a PE session.   We also try and reserve some time to talk about a certain topic like psychology or nutrition etc.  The kids do really enjoy it.  I also wanted to do some mentoring – I look out for someone who could benefit from my help and I work with them over 6 months.  It’s just so nice at the end of the 6 months to see how far they have progressed and listen to their feedback. I work with them over Skype and emails and come and see me in competitions…I want them to know I started just like them and they are shocked to find out there is no magic formula it’s all about drive and motivation and working hard.

Most definitely!  4 years ago if you’d have asked me that I would have said no!  I think getting the point of becoming a pro, a coach has a huge responsibility for preparing an individual for all that is to come, so I would hate to waste my experiences I have.  I can definitely see myself coaching.  I would love to be involved with the US collegiate side of coaching, so I am just building up my experience of that at the moment.  I would also like to take some of that knowledge home as well.

I love singing, it keeps me sane!  I do a lot of weddings when I am home but i am not a professional.  At the moment my only audience is my dog!

When I first came to the sport, I had quite a balanced life and when I become professional, the balance just changed and it was track track track!  So now its nice to have something thats away from that and its nice to remember that there is a life outside of track.

One of the languages in my Mum’s mother tongue which is Igbo, a Nigerian dialect which she spoke to me from birth, so that was actually the first language I spoke.    Then I learnt French and Spanish at School.  I just love learning these two languages.  When I was at school, French was the first class that I got moved up to the top set for!  i just had flare for it!

Spanish I took up later which I found easier than French.  I spent a lot of time in Paris as part of my degree and also had a lot of trips to Spain.

  1. Jill S

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    Love this interview! Thanks for being so honest Marilyn. As for what happened to you in 2012- I’m gobsmacked! It’s so unfair that even after proving yourself you get treated like shit.

  2. Helena

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    Really fantastic and honest interview!! It is such a shame and a disgrace that people working in sports administration can ruin an athletes career like that. What a cruel and awful thing to experience. Marilyn sounds like a wonderful person and a true role model for all girls. Congratulations Marilyn and best of luck for the season ahead!!

  3. Sarah Craven

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    I love Marilyn! Congrats on being an amazing ambassador for your sport! I want you to coach my kids!

  4. Kevlarino

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    Running in Rio …#talent #teammaz #onwards and upwards …such a strong lady …proud

  5. Brianna

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    Best interview on here! You will make an awesome coach – we would welcome you over in the States as an NCAA coach!!

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