Sports Monks

Lawrence Okoye on NFL and return to discus: ‘Physically I am superior now – American football aided me’

Lawrence Okoye speaks gently, but with certainty.

Seventy metres is discus’ gold standard. Only three active have ever thrown that far and major titles are usually won with much less.

Could Okoye, after seven years out of the circle, really reach that mark?

“Absolutely,” he says. “Absolutely.”

His belief is total. But it has basis. Given another life, and other choices, he probably would already have done so.

In July 2011, at the age of 19, he threw 67.63m, further than any teenager before or since. In May 2012, he set the current British record of 68.24m.

Less than two years after taking up discus full-time, he was in an Olympic final. His coach predicted world records and major golds.

And then? Then, Okoye had offers.

A uniquely gifted athlete, his power and size came allied to raw speed. He had played for London Irish and Wasps’ academy sides and Premiership rugby clubs were preparing contracts to turn him back into a winger.

An especially gifted student, he also had a place to study law at Oxford.

But Okoye chose the unknown. He opted for American football and signed for the San Francisco 49ers.

It never quite worked out. New gridiron converts rarely manage to hang tough as long as Okoye did, but in four and a half years that included stints at the 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins, he didn’t get into a competitive NFL game.

“America was definitely something I enjoyed,” he said. “That decision to go was nine years ago now; it is not something I think about.

“I am very much focused on my day-to-day life and making sure I do what I need to achieve my goals.”

After spells with two lower-league American football teams, he’s now back in track and field.

And, he says, he’s better.

“I have a better body,” Okoye, now 29, says. “Physically I am a superior animal now to in 2012.

“Elite discus throwers are stronger than 99% of American football players. I would be stronger if I had done discus my whole athletic career. But in other aspects – explosiveness and athleticism – American football has aided me.

“And I know more about sport in general now than I did in 2012. I have more experience, more life experience. I have more tools in my toolbox to get the job done.”

Another legacy of his NFL career – a torn abductor muscle and a serious hernia – hampered Okoye’s initial return to discus in 2019.

As facilities closed their doors in early 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, he resorted to throwing in a public park in Hull.

Now though, with an extra year’s training under his belt, he is on a trajectory for Tokyo.

In five outings this year, he has thrown further than any other Briton in 2021. But his 2021 best of 65.56m is still 44cm short of the Olympic qualifying standard.

“That’s not something I am worried about at all,” Okoye says.

“I have thrown [the qualifying distance] so many times, but had small toe fouls. In warm-ups I have thrown way further. It is just a matter of learning how to get better at competing. That is a skill in itself.”

He will get another chance this weekend when he represents Great Britain for the first time in nine years at the European Team Championships in Poland.

The way he talks, the way he throws, you would bet Okoye taking it too.

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