The graduate student and Olympic athlete reflects on her time at Texas Tech University and her running history.
One would be hard-pressed to find someone more determined, committed and driven to excel in their craft than an Olympic athlete. Hours on days on weeks on months on years of training for a chance to compete on the world's stage over the course of 16 days sounds a bit insane, but to the athletes, it's worth it.
Blessing Okagbare knows firsthand. The Nigerian-born athlete – who will graduate from Texas Tech University this weekend with her master's degree in interdisciplinary studies – won a silver medal in the long jump during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“When I won my first Olympic medal, I was 19 and a sophomore at the University of Texas at El Paso,” Okagbare said. “Honestly, I was this naive girl who didn't know what she really wanted to do. I was just so happy to represent my country, and on as big a stage as the Olympics. I could compete, I could be a professional athlete and I could serve my country. That was so exciting for me. When I got the medal, it started to dawn on me there is more to this than just being happy about it. This is a talent I really need to build on.”
And build on it she did. Okagbare has now been a professional track and field athlete for 11 years. However, when she decided to go back to school to earn her graduate degree, Okagbare decided on Texas Tech.
“I'm a volunteer track and field coach at Texas Tech,” Okagbare said. “I trained there with Calvin Robinson, the men's and women's sprints and hurdles coach. I've known him since I won my first Olympic medal. So, Texas Tech was like a family to me.
“When I had the opportunity to go back to graduate school after earning my bachelor's degree in business administration, I checked the program and saw that Texas Tech has a really good program for interdisciplinary studies. I've got a place that I feel like everybody's family around me, and tuition wasn't bad. I spoke with an academic adviser and she advised me properly that, if I wanted to go this route, this is what I have to do. If I needed help, I would get the support I would need to do it effectively, so I chose Texas Tech.”
Choosing the path
Okagbare chose a self-designed interdisciplinary studies degree. This degree integrates areas and courses from existing graduate programs and allows students to create a program that best fits their interests and career aspirations, acknowledging these might not be well defined within traditional disciplinary boundaries.
With that freedom, Okagbare's degree focuses on public administration, sports marketing and strategic communication and innovation. She plans to use her degree to make a difference in the sports world.
“I love track and field, I love a little bit of politics, and I love anything that gets me connected to people,” Okagbare said. “So, when I come out of sports as a professional athlete, I don't want anything that will take me too far away from what I love and I have a passion for.
“Another thing was, there's so much in the sport I feel needs to be better. It doesn't need to be changed completely, but it needs to be better. So, just being an athlete for years and with all the experience I have, I chose sports marketing so if I decide to be I want to be a great marketer, I will be able to do that.”
Okagbare said public administration and communication are key factors in making effective change.
“When it comes to the public administration area that I picked, there's a little bit of sports and politics in everything in the world now,” she said. “I want to be able to dabble around in the area of politics and actually be effective, making sure when I try to change or make things better, I can do it right.
“And for communication, I want to be able to communicate my thoughts and ideas to people so when I speak, they understand me properly and I have a good relationship with people through communicating. Communication is huge in every aspect of our lives. So, when I do these things, when I try to change and I try to make an impact – I'm big on charity as well – I feel like these areas are going to help me know how to do these things properly – not just in track and field, but in sports in general.”
Blessing Okagbare Foundation
Track and field empowered Okagbare as a young woman, and she wanted to make sure every girl and boy – especially those in Nigeria – could experience that same feeling. So, she created the Blessing Okagbare Foundation.
According to the website, the Foundation aims to promote social development through sports. It provides mentorship, financial support for young boys and girls from disadvantaged backgrounds and furthers initiatives and projects that promote and support women's empowerment.
“I started this as an act of kindness,” Okagbare said. “Now, my foundation is all about helping, growing and supporting people through mentoring or with financial or academic support. Whatever issues you have, you can write to the foundation and we'll look into it. We really want to help. We want to make society a better place. It's not just about sports, but every area I can help in society as well.”
Life after Texas Tech
Shortly after Okagbare is handed her graduate degree, she'll be heading to Tokyo to compete in her third Olympic Games. After they were delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Okagbare is ready to get back in her element.
“Competitions were completely shut down,” she said. “Last year, I didn't do any competitions; I did not travel. So, my preparations – everything that goes into training financially, mentally, physically – all that changed. But that was what the pandemic brought. A lot of things happened that were not planned for, and you just have to regroup and adjust according to what's happening in the world at the moment. Safety, on top of everything, was the priority. But, I'm ready to compete.”
Beyond the Tokyo Olympics, Okagbare is still continuing life as a professional athlete. Even when she stops running professionally, she sees herself involved in the sports world as a career.
“I got my master's degree for when I fully retire from track and field,” Okagbare said. “I want something that keeps me close to the athletes, the sports and everything that will make it better. I'm looking forward to making sure I stay connected to the athletes. Hopefully, I get to work with one of the shoe companies, where I can actually speak to the athletes about branding and apparel issues, what they want, the changes they want in sports and actually communicate that back to these companies.”
True to form, Okagbare also wants to see positive changes happen back home in Nigeria.
“The sports sector there is so unorganized,” she said. “There's so much going on. I feel like I need to go back home and try to help make it better for the people who are coming up, because the legacy we leave at the moment, the people coming behind us get to benefit or suffer from it. So, I want to make sure while they're coming in, they have a much better platform than I had when I started – not completely easy, but more organized and structured.
“I want to go back home and make sure when I speak to people about how to restructure sports, they actually listen and know that it's a good step to take to make sure it's great for the people who are coming up.”
Okagbare said she's already applying the education she received while at Texas Tech.
“I wanted to get my master's degree for so long, but I just waited,” she said. “Overall, the learning process has been amazing. I've learned a lot. I'm already applying it to my personal life, my foundation and the other businesses I do as well. It's been an honor to even be at Texas Tech and to accomplish this master's program, too.”