Mark Winitz starts off his coverage for the US Olympic Trials for RunBlogRun and Caltrack.com with his feature interview on Barbara Nwaba.
Breakout Heptathlete Barbara Nwaba on Track for Rio
By Mark Winitz
If her past three track and field seasons are any indication, U.S. multi-event athlete Barbara Nwaba is poised to turn heads in an important Olympic year. The 2012 graduate of University of California, Santa Barbara, who competes for the heptathlon and decathlon focused Santa Barbara Track Club, won the heptathlon at the 2015 U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships while scoring a personal record 6,500 points. That score ranked her #6 in the world last year, and #1 in the U.S. Only five U.S. athletes in history have turned in higher scores for the seven-event heptathlon competition composed of the 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200m, long jump, javelin, and 800m. Of course, the U.S. and world all-time list is headed by legendary Jackie Joyner-Kersee who scored the current world record of 7,291 in 1988 at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
Last March, at the 2016 U.S. Indoor Combined Events Championships in Portland, Nwaba, age 27, captured the win in the indoor pentathlon (composed of five events) with 4,415 points, a personal best. That was followed by a fourth place overall and top American performance at the IAAF World Indoor Championships with 4,661 points, another personal best. Then, switching to outdoors, on May 29 she placed fifth and top American with a 6,360-point heptathlon at the prestigious international Hypo Meeting in GÃ¶tzis, Austria which is billed as the most prestigious meet for multi-event athletes outside of the Olympic Games. Canada’s Brianne Theisen Eaton–a favored contender for a medal in Rio–won the event with 6,765 points.
How has Nwaba acquired the multiple, refined skills to sit near the top of the world in multi events? Where did she come from and where is she headed at the relatively young athletic age of 27? Let’s find out.
Nwaba was born and raised in Los Angeles by parents who moved to the U.S. from Nigeria. She is the oldest in a family of six brothers and sisters. In elementary school, she was heavily active in an after school sports program organized by LA’s Best which involves children in a different sports activity every month. She graduated from LA’s University High School in 2007 where she competed in the California State Track and Field Championships as both a Junior and Senior, in the 300m hurdles and high jump. Nwaba was recruited by the University of California, Santa Barbara where she graduated in 2012 with a Sociology degree.
It was at UC Santa Barbara where Nwaba first met Josh Priester, the coach that guides her today. Following a successful multi-event athletic career at George Fox University, Priester was hired by UC Santa Barbara in 2008 to coach the sprints, hurdles, and combined events. Nwaba was in her sophomore year at UCSB after competing in the hurdles and high jump as a freshman.
“I distinctly remembered our first coach-athlete meeting,” Priester recalled. “I found that Barbara had done some high jumping in high school. I took one look at her and thought she was probably going to be able to take up the throws because she is a big, strong girl. I asked her ‘what do you think about training for the heptathlon?’ Her first question was ‘what’s the heptathlon?’ So, I explained all the events and told her that there was an 800 at the end of it. She wasn’t too excited about that. Ironically, Nwaba had the fastest 800m time (2:07.13) in the world last year for the heptathlon.”
Priester served as the Associate Director of Track & Field at UCSB until the summer of 2012 when he left the college. That Fall, Priester and Nwaba formed the Women’s Athletic Performance Foundation, a non-profit organization specifically to support U.S. female elite multi-event athletes. In 2013, the organization evolved into Women’s Athletic Performance Foundation “doing business as” Santa Barbara Track Club, to include male multi-eventers.
“The driving force behind the whole thing is to improve the heptathlon and pentathlon in the U.S.,” Priester said.
And, what is Priester’s general coaching philosophy that he employs to successfully develop Nwaba and some of the other finest combined event athletes in the nation?
“There’s no cookie cutter approach to training for the decathlon or heptathlon,” Priester believes. “Some athletes can handle a lot more volume than others. So, the most important thing is getting to know the person and not just the athlete. In my opinion, the athletics take care of themselves when you truly have the best interests of the person in mind. The nature of the decathlon is eliminating weaknesses over time. If you can eliminate weaknesses and have an even keel you can do really well in the multis.”
Priester’s club now includes 12 open division athletes. Watch for at least four of them at the upcoming U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials: heptathletes Nwaba (who is the top women’s automatic qualifier) plus Lindsay Lettow and Lindsay Schwartz, and decathlete Tom FitzSimons (who will likely compete based on minimum field sizes).
Under Priester’s direction, the organization also organizes a youth section of the club that currently has over 125 youth athletes who are guided and mentored by the club’s elite/open athletes, plus track and field and cross country camps and clinics for youth and high school athletes, and private and group training programs. Santa Barbara Track Club also organizes the Sam Adams Combined Events Invitational–all at Westmont College in Santa Barbara where SBTC trains. Priester currently works as an Assistant Track and Field Coach at Westmont, an NAIA member school.
Both Ashton Eaton (the reigning world record holder in the decathlon and indoor heptathlon) and his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton (the Canadian heptathlon record holder) spend much of each winter and spring training in Santa Barbara, hosted by Westmont College and the Santa Barbara Track Club.
The SBTC and its athletes, including Barbara Nwaba, are sponsored by ABEO biomechanical footwear.
We caught up with Nwaba two weeks before the start of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and asked her some questions about her training, progress to date, and her outlook for the Trials and beyond. The interview is below.
Q: Barbara, how did the Santa Barbara Track Club come about with you and Josh?
During the last few months of my Senior year (at UCSB) Josh told me that he was thinking about starting his own non-profit and giving me and other athletes a situation where I could train and live without struggling too much. Luckily, my athletics at UCSB went well. Otherwise, I didn’t know where I was going to go. Because, with the multi events, it’s really hard to find a post-collegiate training situation.
Q: Yes, you’re certainly blessed in that respect–having other multi-eventers to train with. On any particular day, do you focus your training on one specific event as a group? Or, are you spread over the track in groups, working on different events?
In the Fall, we’re pretty much all together. That’s when we do a lot of our general conditioning work. We’re not doing a lot of technical work yet. The wintertime is when we start doing a little more technical work and we usually do it all together at that point. In the spring, it gets a little harder because everyone is on different pages depending on their competition schedule.
It’s great having a group that’s pretty much all on the national stage. When we first started the club it was only me and it was really hard. I was asking ‘Is this what professional track life is like? I want someone else out here with me.’
Q: Can you describe what a typical in-season training week looks like for you?
Yes, we have Sundays off. We come back on Monday where we have shot put. We start with a little longer warmup, going through a netball series of drills. After that we do some grass running to shake off the rust from the weekend–maybe some 200s combined with a couple of 100-meter striders. Tuesdays and Thursdays are a little harder where we do two technical events and work out up to four hours. Tuesday is long jump and sprints. Wednesday is our active recovery day so everything is non-impact. We can go on the bike, stationary bike, or ElliptiGOÂ® (outdoor elliptical bicycle). Thursdays is hurdles, high jump, and a little bit of grass running. And, on Tuesdays and Thursdays we always go to the weight room and lift: A lot of Olympic lifting and cleans, bench press, inclines, netball, plus a lot of plyometrics. Fridays are javelin and our 800 or 1, 500 meter workouts. We also might lift on Fridays or have active recovery again.
Q: How important is it for you to work with other athletes during your workouts? How do the other athletes in SBTC support you during workouts?
It’s definitely a huge benefit having other athletes with you. All of us have different talents and specialties. Like, my best event is high jump. The long jump is usually one of my tougher events. But Lindsay Lettow is an awesome long jumper. So, every now and then, when something my coach is telling me isn’t really clicking, maybe she sees something and she might say ‘Hey, Barb, maybe if you try this…’ So, if you’re willing to accept it, everyone can give you cues to help you get better. That’s, definitely a huge benefit.
Even just watching other athletes, seeing how they go through the process–say, like wow, the way she turns her foot is something that I never do, That’s definitely been a big help because I’m very much a visual learner.
Q: Coach Priester has guided you since your collegiate days. What are the key aspects of his guidance that have contributed the most to your development?
I think, a lot of it is his positive outlook. He was a multi-eventer himself, so he is very aware of the mentality that must have when you compete. Especially, if things go bad, he’s, like, Hey, you’re fine. Look at the bigger picture. He’s the person that always believes more than I thought I was capable of. If sometimes I feel like this is it for me he’ll come in and be, like: This is where I see you in the future. This is where you’ll be if you just keep on the path you’re going. I see you at this level. He’s always upbeat. That energy, you just feed off it.
Q: You’ve experienced steady improvements over the past several years, to the point where you were ranked sixth in the world last year in the hep and first in the U.S. with a 6,500-point outing at the 2015 U.S. Outdoor Champs. Can you tell me what’s contributed the most to these improvements?
It’s definitely the time I’ve spent in the sport. Just learning the events is the biggest part for any multi-event athlete. For example, a single-event athlete, such as a long jumper, might hit the runway three or four times a week. Well, multi-eventers can only hit the runway once because we have other events to work on, The more time we spend at any particular event, the better we get at it. Most of my success to date is just patience and time and knowing that if you just keep at it things will get better.
Also, having the experience at big meets. I’ve been competing at the U.S. Championships since my junior year in college when I redshirted. Also, learning how to just step back, be yourself, relax, and do your own thing…and the points will just happen.
Q: In a seven-event competition such as the heptathlon how do you keep your focus on the event that you’re competing in, without thinking about what happened in the previous event or what’s coming up next?
No matter what the outcome in a specific event, I have to process what happened and park it. You need to reflect on what happened in any particular event when the meet is over. You can’t waste energy on events that are already finished. Plus, in practice, we go through a progression for each event. For example, I know the specific warm-ups I need to do for every specific event. If I just go through those steps, I know I’ll be fine. I’ll know my mindset has changed to ‘OK, now I’m specifically a 200-meter runner,’ or ‘now, I’m just a long jumper and nothing else matters.’ If I constantly practice this in training I know I’ll be OK.
Q: Do you want to talk about your experience at the outdoor World Championships in Bejiing last year? You recorded new PRs in the javelin and shot put, but the hurdles posed a bit of a challenge. What did you learn from your experience?
Editor’s Note: Nwaba had a heartbreaking hurdles race–the hep’s first event of the day. She mis-stepped hurdle one, then hit hurdles two and five going down both times. She did not finish the race, lost valuable points, and ultimately finished 27th in the hep competition.
It you’re talking about experience, that was pretty much the biggest stage I’ve ever been on. I was seeing all these amazing athletes all around me. So, I almost felt that I was out of my element when I went into the hurdles. I was nervous. I think I just pressed too much in that race. I’d never taken an eighth step into the first hurdle. It just came out of nowhere. But continuing on to complete the competition was essential. I knew that it was the best practice that I could get going into an Olympic year. I was very proud of myself about everything else I was able to do at Outdoor Worlds.
Q: Moving ahead a little, to this year’s big outdoor season, you had an excellent opener outdoors at the Hypo meet in Austria among a number of the best heptathletes in the world. That fifth place performance must now give you a lot of confidence going into the U.S. Olympic Trials and, hopefully, beyond to Rio.
Definitely if I repeat that kind of performance in Eugene I should be fine. Last year, winning USA’s and then competing in the World Championships, I was in awe. Now, I feel like, yes, I belong. There’s no need to be in awe, or be afraid. I just need to trust in my abilities. Now, I’m ready to go and just do my own thing.
Q: At this point, are you looking a little bit past the Trials? Do I dare ask, if you are competing in Rio, who your biggest competition might be? Brianne Theisen-Eaton?
Definitely. She’s just a monster. As far as I can see among the top spots–who really wants it and has been working hard–it’s Brianne for sure. She’s been at the top for so many years now. It’s always been a blast competing against her. Then there’s Laura Ikauniece-AdmidiÅ†a from Latvia. She placed third at Worlds last year and had a huge PR (6,622 points) in the hep this year (at the Hypo Meeting in Austria). Also, Carolin SchÃ¤fer from Germany. So, if I want to get up there on the podium in Rio those are the girls I’ll need to contend with.
But right now I’m not focused so much on that moment. Right now, it’s just getting through the U.S. Trials and just making sure that I execute there.
Q: Barbara, what are your other goals this year besides that big, ultimate goal of representing the U.S. at the Olympic Games?
Yes, the ultimate goal is to make my first Olympic team. I’d also love to go out there, pull it all together, and PR. It would be great to keep climbing up there on the U.S. (all-time) list.
Q: And, what are your long-term goals in the sport?
Hopefully, to go another four years and, hopefully, to make two Olympic teams. And, hopefully, to reach the podium at the Olympic Games. Also, to make a lasting impact on the sport. If I can inspire anyone to even try the multi events once, it’s an accomplishment because I feel like there is just so much talent in the U.S. and it’s definitely growing. You can see that compared to the qualifying standards for the 2012 Trials, and what it takes now to qualify. The women’s multis have absolutely exploded, which is awesome for our sport.
Mark Winitz has written about running and track and field, organized programs for runners, and served as a consultant and publicist for road races for almost 40 years. He is a longtime activist within USA Track & Field and is a certified USATF Master Level Official/Referee. He also assists road racing events through his company, Win It!z Sports Public Relations and Promotions in Los Altos, Calif.