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Athlete of the Week: Ebun Opata discusses her growth into a national track and field star

| Junior Sports Editor
Dan Hunter, d3photography.com

Ebun Opata competes during last season’s national championships. (d3photography)

Following a second-place finish in the triple jump at last year’s indoor and outdoor National Championships, Washington University senior Ebun Opata is on a roll, posting the fourth furthest jump of 12.11m in Division III on Jan. 20. The repeat National Runner-Up also currently holds the 15th furthest mark in the long jump this season, and was named the University Athletic Association’s (UAA) Athlete of the Week on Jan. 26. Opata sat down with Student Life to discuss her passion for social work, finding success coming back from injury, and her mango Instagram page.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Student Life: How did you get into the sport of track and field?

Ebun Opata: Growing up, I played a lot of sports. I grew up in England and there were a variety of sports there that I enjoyed playing, but I found the most enjoyment in track. I’ve always found that there’s a huge team culture aspect, which is kind of surprising since it can seem like an individual sport. But I’ve always found I had the closest bonds on the track team and I’ve found [that] my most uplifting and most encouraging coaches have been my track coaches. 

SL: When did you decide you wanted to compete at the collegiate level?

EO: For a while, it didn’t cross my mind. But I had this one track coach who had a lot more confidence in me than I did. Throughout my high school track experience, he was so motivating and uplifting, and I think he brought the idea to me. I remember the first time I got an offer letter was the moment I realized I actually have [the] ability to be able to compete at the collegiate level, whatever level or division that may be. 

SL: So fast forward to last year, you placed second in indoor nationals in the triple jump. What did that first podium finish mean to you?

EO: I was genuinely so surprised, especially going from indoor season. I was still recovering from an injury from the previous season that never healed correctly, so I wasn’t able to train in the summer. I missed part of training in the fall semester. So, I was already lacking a bit of confidence going into indoor season. But as indoor season went by, and the regular meets went by, I noticed I was still able to compete well and I was competing consistently. But national meets have always been the one meet where my anxiety is super high. It’s the one meet that kind of matters the most. So, I remember that I was just feeling all the emotions when I jumped my second-place jump. I PR’d, which is a personal record, and I remember seeing all of my teammates in the stands just watching and cheering me on, and my family could fly in and see that, so that was a really great moment. 

SL: You mentioned you had an injury that never healed properly. Can you describe what the injury was and how that impacted your sophomore year into your junior year?

EO: So in [my] sophomore year, in March, it was a few days before [the] conference [meet] and I was having the best season I’ve ever had. I think I was doing better each meet consistently, and then one practice, I landed on a wicket and my ankle folded in and swelled up a lot. I was out for basically the rest of the season. The trainers believed it was just an ankle sprain, but we realized it wasn’t healing the way it should be. The week of nationals I really wanted to compete. So, we went again to [get] medical help, and they were saying that it seemed it was better and that it was okay for [me] to compete. So, for the meet of nationals, sophomore year, we taped it up a bunch, and I was able to compete and I did well — I think I maybe got third or fourth at Nationals’ outdoor season. But then afterward, throughout the summer, I noticed the pain was still there, and it didn’t seem it was completely healed. Right before junior year started, I went to another doctor and we got an MRI done. They said there was a cuboid stress fracture, and it was still badly sprained. I went back in the boot for a few more months. I was doing a lot of PT, two [to] three times a week until I was back to being able to compete. But ever since I’ve come out the boot the final time, my ankle hasn’t really been causing me issues.

SL: Changing gears, your result in the triple jump last week was only 0.34 meters off of your personal best and was one of the top marks in Division III. What does that performance mean to you?

EO: Yeah, I was very surprised about that performance. I have a new jumps coach and we’re working on doing something different with my approach to the board. In the past, I’ve just used my speed to jump far, but now we’re trying to have more of a controlled speed so that I can jump with more control over phases. I was kind of nervous going into [the] meet not knowing how far I would be able to jump and if I would still be able to jump as well [since I was] not running as fast. So getting such a high mark early into the season, [and] just doing a new technique [with] my jumping, was really encouraging. I’m not sure if I’ve jumped that far that early in a meet in my previous seasons, so it was really encouraging to get that high.

SL: Coming off of last year’s success, what are your goals for your senior season?

EO: My goal is mainly to gain confidence. Even though I’ve done well and I’ve succeeded in my previous seasons, I still lack confidence, and my coaches have been trying to encourage me. They have more confidence in me than I do. Even though I’ve still jumped on stuff, they still see so much more potential in me, and that I’m capable of becoming a national champion. But before I even have a goal of wanting to become a national champion, I first need to have more confidence in myself and my ability, since I still kind of get anxious, and I overthink smaller things. Once I gain the confidence, I feel like everything else will fall into place.

SL: Have there been any confidence-building strategies you and your coaches have been working on to work on that?

EO: One is not being so hard on myself and realizing I’ve done well before and I’ve competed well before. It shouldn’t be based on [the] circumstances around me, but more of what I’ve been able to do and the ability I have. I have one coach who encourages me through faith because we’re both Christians. A lot of the times when he’s seen that I’m overly anxious, he’s prayed and poured life into me. [He has] reminded me that my identity shouldn’t be in how far I’m jumping or the circumstances surrounding a certain meet day, because if I just let myself get weighed down by any small thing that could go wrong, then I won’t have a balance and a constant peace in my life. That’s definitely helped me with my confidence — remembering I’m more than just an athlete and more than just my good [and bad] days in track.

SL: Switching sides to academics, you’re a candidate in the Brown School. Where did that passion and interest in social work come from?

EO: For my undergrad, I got a degree in psychology. I’m in a three-two program, which means even though I’m a senior, this is my first year of grad school and next year will be my last year of grad school, receiving my master’s in social work. I’ve always found that I love listening to people, hearing about their lives, and advising them. Social work seems like the route that I want to take. I remember in high school, I was part of a youth leadership program, and we took a trip to a children’s home. That was the first time I heard and met with the social worker who was telling me about her career. I found that was the first time that a career resonated with me, and then I think it was sophomore year that I found out about WashU’s social program and how it’s one of the best in the country. I looked more into what a social worker is, and I found that I’m interested in possibly being a school social worker or school counselor. I also wanted to compete again and do a fifth track [year], so I found that it would be a great fit if I could do the three-two program. That [way], I could [not] only get one of the best social work education[s] in the country, but also compete with my team again for one more extra year. I applied last year, and I was like really excited that I got in because it automatically means I can compete with the team for another year.

SL: My last question is kind of a weird one that we ask in all of our athlete of the week interviews. Would you rather have fish for hands or adopt a child every time you hear Bohemian Rhapsody?

EO: Oh my gosh. I don’t like fish at all. Like seafood, I don’t like. And I am also not a fan of aquariums, so I probably would adopt a child every time I hear Bohemian Rhapsody. I also haven’t heard the song that much, so I don’t think I’d be adopting a crazy amount of children. But, it’s also good to adopt children, so that is what I would choose.

SL: Is there anything else you would like to add we didn’t cover?

EO: Okay, so I have an Instagram page called Ebun’s mango that all of my teammates like submitting pictures of mangoes [to]. So, if you would like to see some mangos on your feed, everyone should follow @ebunsmango.

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