It was approaching the end of Christian Okoye’s junior year with the Azusa Pacific University track team in 1986 and Coach Terry Franson realized he would soon need a replacement for his star discus and shot-put thrower.
So Franson talked with Okoye and discovered that his star was one step ahead of him.
“I told Christian that when he was done I needed to find a replacement just like him, and he said, ‘I already found one,’ ” Franson recalled.
Okoye was referring to Ade Olukoju, a fellow Nigerian weight thrower.
Olukoju had been well aware of Okoye’s accomplishments at Azusa Pacific because they had been chronicled in Nigerian newspapers. But it was not until the summer of 1986 that he was contacted by Okoye about coming to Azusa Pacific.
“The first time I saw him, he asked me if I wanted to come to his school because they needed someone to replace him,” Olukoju recalled. “I told him yes because I wanted to throw real far and I figured if I could throw for the same coach as his--and I saw how much he has improved--I could improve a lot.”
Olukoju said he eagerly filled out the enrollment application that Okoye had brought with him, although it wasn’t until January of 1987 that he was accepted by the school.
Olukoju concedes he had concerns about going to school in the U.S.
“The longest I’d been away from home was for a month when I was in a track camp,” he said.
“My first thought was that in America everyone just minded their own business and stayed to themselves. But when I got here everyone was real friendly and I didn’t miss home that much.”
It certainly did not take long for Olukoju to make his presence felt in track. About one month after arriving, he competed for the Cougars in the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics National Indoor Championships in Kansas City and tied for first place with Okoye in the shot put at 57-7.
The 22-year-old Olukoju has made a habit of performing well in the NAIA nationals. As a freshman in 1987, he finished first in both the discus and the shot put at the NAIA outdoor championships. Last year he won the 35-pound weight throw and shot put at the indoor championships and won the discus and finished second in the shot in the outdoor meet.
This year he won the 35-pound weight throw and the shot in the indoor championships at Kansas City. That gives him eight individual titles in three years with the Cougars.
At first, Olukoju said, he may have been a little more competitive in the shot put than the discus.
“I think the two are about the same,” Olukoju says. “Only recently have I started to feel more comfortable with the discus, but I’ve always loved the two of them.”
Olukoju is the NAIA national leader in the shot this season with a best of 62-1, but it is his success in the discus that is starting to raise eyebrows.
At the Fresno Relays on April 1, Olukoju heaved the discus for a personal best of 212-4--the top mark in the world this season. That is only six inches short of Okoye’s school record that was established in 1985 and placed him within striking distance of former Kentucky star Mike Buncic’s all-time collegiate record of 217-10.
That has left a lasting impression on Franson.
“Right now he’s probably got the best clean throw in the world,” Franson said. “He’s never used steroids and he’s definitely an Olympic type of athlete.”
A rock-solid 6-2 and 240 pounds, Olukoju merely has to stand in place to make a good first impression. But it isn’t only his size that has led to his success in the weight events.
“It’s a combination of tremendous strength and incredible speed,” Franson said. “He could run with most sprinters. And mentally he’s very strong. He knows what it takes to get there.”
There is no question about the strength of Olukoju, who bench-presses 450 pounds and squats 700. He also has exceptional speed for any size, being clocked in the 40-yard dash in about 4.4.
Franson says it is Olukoju’s competitive spirit that stands out.
“He’s a fierce competitor,” he said. “He’s the kind of guy who when somebody passes him on a throw he’ll come right back on the next throw. That happened at UCLA and Fresno.
“He’s the kind of guy who on his last throw comes up with his best throw.”
Olukoju credits his competitive nature to a strong mental approach.
“One of my main goals is to always be in control of myself in everything I do,” he said. “I try to maintain control in everything I go after.”
Since he started competing in weight events in 1983, Olukoju has always enjoyed himself.
“I love what I’m doing and whenever a person loves what they’re doing it’s just like they’re having fun out there, and that’s what I do,” he said.
That’s why Olukoju doesn’t mind the long daily workouts. He said he usually alternates between four to six hours of weight training one day and four hours of throwing the next day.
“You have to like working out,” he said. “If you don’t you won’t enjoy it and you won’t be able to throw far.”
Olukoju doesn’t have that problem.
He said the presence of Okoye, who plays running back for the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League but still trains with Olukoju on occasion during the off-season, has helped his progress.
“He’s more than a friend to me,” Olukoju said. “He’s like a big brother, and I’ve always admired him and his track progress. He and I lift weights whenever he’s around and he helps me with my training when I’m doing the discus.”
Olukoju thinks his best throws in the discus are ahead.
“I technically have a lot to work on,” he said. “I was surprised (about his throw of 212-4) because I thought I still had a little work to do on my technique. I feel if I polish my techniques I’ll throw farther.”
That could place Olukoju in a good position by the time of the 1992 Olympics. Olukoju isn’t a stranger to the Olympics, having competed in the discus for Nigeria at Seoul. He didn’t finish among the leaders.
“If I’m still in track I’d love to compete in 1992 and I feel I’ll be more prepared than I was in 1988,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest reason why Olukoju is hedging on whether he will compete in the 1992 Olympics is because of another sport on the horizon.
Olukoju is contemplating Okoye’s route and trying out for the football team next season as a running back. Under NAIA guidelines, he will still have three years of eligibility remaining in football.
Franson said it is speculative whether Olukoju can have as much success in football as Okoye. But he added that Olukoju has the size, strength and speed.
“I think it’s going to be a wait-and-see thing,” he said. “Physically, he has all the tools and it just depends on whether he has the mental side. It’s going to be a question of whether he can take the contact and play in pain.”
He would start with more knowledge about football than Okoye, who had never seen a football before he entered Azusa Pacific.
Olukoju watches pro football on television and was impressive in brief workouts at running back with the Cougars last season.
“I’ll come out next year and if I like it I’ll continue, but if I don’t I’ll stick to track,” Olukoju said.
That is one sport in which Olukoju has already established a pretty good track record.