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Barbara Nwaba Talks About Realizing Her Biggest Dream By Going to Rio Olympics

Watch a video interview with the Santa Barbara track star ready to compete in the Olympic Games heptathlon

Barbara Nwaba of the ABEO/Santa Barbara Track Club is competing in the heptathlon at the Rio Olympics.
Barbara Nwaba of the ABEO/Santa Barbara Track Club is competing in the heptathlon at the Rio Olympics. (Barry Punzal / Noozhawk photo)

Barbara Nwaba remembers dreaming about competing in the Olympic Games when she was in the fourth grade.

She had a gift of speed and athleticism and she also had a good work ethic.

Her dream was realized back on July 10, when she won the heptathlon title at the U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.

“This is something I’ve been waiting for forever,” she said. “It’s something no one can ever take away from me.”

She goes to the games in Rio de Janeiro ranked No. 6 in the world.

Nwaba, 27, realized after her freshman year on the track team at UC Santa Barbara that her best shot at making the U.S. Olympic Team was through a demanding series of events known as the heptathlon, a seven-event track and field all-around competition contested over two days.

The heptathlon can be defined by the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius — Faster, Higher, Stronger. An athlete needs to be all three to score lots of points.

The competition tests the overall ability and skill of a track and field athlete. There’s the rawness of sprinting, hurdling and long jumping combined with technical events like the high jump and javelin, the power and strength of the shot put and, finally, and the strategy and stamina of the 800-meter run.

Encouraged by then-UCSB assistant coach Josh Priester, a former decathlete at George Fox University in Oregon, Nwaba started training for the heptathlon in her sophomore year.

She came to UCSB from University High in Los Angeles, where she was a L.A. City Section Champion in the 300 hurdles and high jump.

There are a lot of different paths for multi-event athletes, Priester said.

“A lot of times high school athletes who demonstrate an ability to do a jump, a sprint and a hurdle, that’s kind of a no-brainer, especially if look at their somatotype or body type,” he said.

“If you think they can learn how to throw, and coordination is a huge part of it...  Barb’s a pretty good athlete. The first time we went out and threw the shot she was throwing 36-37 feet right away. Some people, it takes years to get to that point.”

Priester left UCSB and formed the ABEO/Santa Barbara Track Club, where post-collegiate multi-events athletes and others train as a team. The club’s home base is Westmont College.

Nwaba is the club’s first Olympian.

Decathlete Tom Fitzsimons, Jr., is excited about it. He came out from Maryland to join the club in 2013 and said it has come a long way.

“From where it was when I first moved out here... we didn't have a logo, we didn't have a schedule. And now Rio is on the schedule for somebody in the Santa Barbara Track Club,” Fitzsimons said.

Long before the club, Priester was working with UCSB coach Pete Dolan at Pauley Track, convincing Nwaba she would be good at heptathlon.

“We brought her into it very easily,” he recalled of her introduction to the event in the fall of 2008. “I said, ‘Let's just train for it a little bit and see how it goes.’”

It went incredibly well.

“The very first time she did the heptathlon she broke the school record, which wasn't a crazy record but it was a record,” he said.

Her next meet was the California Invitational Multis and she scored 5,039 points. She scored 5,000 points and finished third at the Big West Championships.

Priester knew he had a special athlete in Nwaba.

“Anyone that can go out and score 5000 points in their first year doing it, that's a good starting point," he said.

Nwaba set a Big West record with 5,986 points at the Sam Adams Invitational in 2012 at Westmont College and later won the conference championship with a meet record of 5,714 points.

She competed at the Olympic Trials that year but failed to make the team for the London Olympic Games.

“Barb was in really good position going into the javelin and the javelin just fell apart at the Olympic Trials,”​ Priester said.

The javelin was the turning point at this year's trials, too. She headed into the event after falling from first to fourth overall following a 14th place in the long jump (19-2.75).

But she soared back to the top of the leaderboard by uncorking a javelin throw of 161-4, second best in the competition.

“She was in a similar position and the javelin is what saved her,” Priester said.

She finished the trials with the third-best time in the 800 (2:11.71), won her second straight national championship with 6,494 points (second most in her career) and qualified for the Rio Olympics.

“The 800 was one of the things that originally gave her hesitancy in doing the heptathlon,”​ Priester said. “The irony is in 2015 she had the fastest 800 by any world-class heptathlete. Now it's become one of her biggest weapons.”

Nwaba goes to Rio with personal bests of: 13.38 in the 100-meter hurdles; 6-2.75 in the high jump; 49-2.50 in the shot put; 23.76 in the 200 meters; 20-5.25 in the long jump; 165-4.25 in the javelin; 2:07.13 in the 800 and 6,500 points.

Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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