Chinwe Okoro poses for a picture during the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Photo courtesy of Chinwe Okoro
BY MARY RINGWALD, SPORTS EDITOR
The airports of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, were overcome with activity as hundreds of athletes touched down in the land of Olympic gold.
Chinwe Okoro stood in the crowded airport taking in the sights of the Olympic city, and she finally realized she had made it.
She was a member in the club of elites who made it to the international event that brings millions to their television screens to watch history being made.
Only one word came to her mind.
Okoro, an American/Nigerian dual-citizen, former University of Louisville student-athlete (2007-2011), and recent graduate of the Bellarmine University Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program, qualified for her first summer Olympic Games to represent Nigeria in the discus competition. She finished 14th out of 34 competitors, only two places away from qualifying for the discus finals.
“It has always been my longtime goal to make it and go,” Okoro said. “You watch it when it comes on every four years and to actually be there was just awesome. My parents are both from Nigeria, and I am a dual-citizen, so it was nice to represent them. I wanted to see if I could help boost (Nigerian) athletics up a little bit along with the other athletes.”
At Louisville, she had tremendous prowess in both the shot put and discus events both nationally and internationally. As a freshman, she was one of the first female athletes to claim a national title in shot put at the USA Junior Championships in 2007-08, and as a senior, she clinched All-American honors for Division I outdoor track and field.
Her athletic successes are outstanding, but her academic achievements are equally impressive. During her collegiate career, Okoro was a three-time U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Association All-Academic Team honoree, managing to conquer the rigorous academic schedule of an undergraduate student-athlete. She then completed the same task as a Bellarmine doctoral student while qualifying for the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games.
“It is probably the hardest thing I have ever done in my life because you want to be successful in school and in athletics,” Okoro said. “I always grew up (thinking) that school comes first so that was my kind of mindset. Compared to other athletes and professionals, I probably put in one-third of the time that they did. I just tried to do the best of what I could with the time I had in order to balance everything.”
Dr. Mark Wiegand, the Bellarmine dean of the Lansing School of Nursing and Health Sciences and a professor in the DPT program, saw Okoro studying every possible moment that she could. He said she would spend long hours in Allen Hall working with her classmates or studying by herself.
“That passion is what can make a good therapist great,” Wiegand said. “I think one of Chinwe’s strengths was to use her abilities to support her passion for physical therapy and rehabilitation, and that also fueled her athletic performance.”
Okoro said she enjoys helping people get back to what they love to do.
“There are patients who have come up to me and said, ‘Oh, thank you so much because now I can do this and I can do that,’ and that is a good feeling for me,” Okoro said. “Anytime I can help somebody, I am always up for it.”
Dr. Carrie Clark Hawkins, director of DPT clinical education and Bellarmine University professor, met Okoro when she hired her as a technician for the Kentucky Orthopedic Rehab Team (KORT) before she applied to the DPT program. She said Okoro worked hard for her grades, and she shined in the clinical settings.
“She is going to be a fantastic physical therapist,” Hawkins said. “I think she is very passionate, and she really kind of shined during her clinical experiences. They really loved her wherever she went, and there was just a lot of praise for her skills.”
The passion and determination earned her All-American honors. It earned her a Bellarmine doctoral degree. And it earned her a trip to Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“If you really want it, keep trying your best to try and reach your goals,” Okoro said. “You have to keep going even though it may be hard at times. If you believe in yourself and that you can do it, well, I like to think that you will.”