by Jennifer Phillips
On a typical Tuesday, Thursday or Friday, it is not unusual to see past track and field Olympians and future hopefuls from around the world vigorously at work on the Ortmayer Stadium track, training for the 1996 Olympics.
The four men and five women on the team represent Nigeria, Great Britain and the United States. They are coached by former Olympian Innocent Pgbunike from Nigeria.
It was through a suggestion from Pgbunike’s college friend, Cres Gonzalez, athletic fields maintenance worker, that Pgbunike and his team decided to train at ULV.
“The University welcomed us and I feel that we will help the athletic program here at La Verne,” said Pgbunike.
“I want to give back what God gave me,” he said.
What God gave Pgbunike and his runners is what they consider natural talent. This “natural talent” is echoed through the voices of the runners. During each practice, prayers are said.
“God helps those whom help themselves,” said 1992 Nigerian silver medalist Osmand Ezinwa.
Ezinwa and his twin brother Davidson run the 100- and 200-meter sprints and were part of the 1992 Nigerian 4×100-meter relay team.
Competing often in foreign countries, world championship meets and the Olympics are familiar experiences for them all.
“I want to be the best in my event in the world. I want to win a medal at the ‘96 Olympics and you have to be the best in the world. The medal I want is the gold,” said American hurdler Doris Williams.
Last year, Williams was part of the World Championship team.
“Every individual brings something to the group,” said Williams.
That includes support and encouragement.
“It’s a family environment,” said British hurdler Michelle Campbell, who was on the 1991 British World Championship team.
“If I can’t get my knees up they will encourage me,” said Campbell.
“It feels good to see each other at meets and sometimes you’re competing against one another. I competed against Michelle last year and I wanted to win, but at the same time I wanted her to win also,” said Williams.
“My goal and prayer is that everyone in this group can make it to the Olympics,” said Pgbunike.
American Alice Brown has seen gold before. In 1984, she was a gold medalist in the 4×100-meter relay. In 1988, she took the silver in the 100-meter sprint and the gold once again in the 4×100-meter relay. Even with all that, Brown is still humble.
“I still get nervous and geared up,” said Brown.
For Osmand Ezinwa, being in the Olympics and traveling around the world is not that exciting.
“I feel like if I can do it anyone can. It’s just for fun,” said Ezinwa.
“There is no ego problem here. Each athlete is blessed with God-given talent,” said Pgbunike.
“God owns our body and if he wants us to qualify, we will qualify,” said Patrick Nwankdo from Nigeria. Nwankdo was an alternate for the 4×100-meter relay team in the 1988 Olympics.
If practice makes perfect, the nine runners are well on their way to success. Pgbunike implements an extensive daily workout, aside from the three days of training here at La Verne.
On Mondays, they run the steep hills at Mt. San Antonio College in Pomona. Wednesdays are for each runner to train individually.
“We are doing a lot of endurance building and sprints, to prepare good stamina,” said Pgbunike.
“He’s a fair coach,” said Campbell of Pgbunike.
“I want to make sure they all stay healthy and injury-free,” said physical therapist John Wallace.
“After you cross the finish line, the relief and pressure is gone and it takes a minute or two for it to set in. All the training you have done is over in seconds,” said Brown.
Other members of the team include Americans Diane Pullins, a quarter-miler; Anthony House, a hurdler; Nigerians Gabriel Okon, a sprinter; and Fatimat Yussuf, who runs the quarter mile.
In June each member will compete for his or her home country in the Olympic trials. The top two or three winners will advance to the Olympics, to be held in Atlanta, Ga., next summer.