Olympic Hopefuls

Two UCSB Track-and-Field Stars Head to Oregon to Vie for Berths at the London Games

Barbara Nwaba
Paul Wellman (file)

Barbara Nwaba calls herself “a regular chick,” and if that means she is sweet and friendly, it is an apt description of the UCSB athlete. She cannot get through a conversation without periodically bursting into delightful laughter.

So what about that YouTube video where she’s racing Olé, the Gaucho mascot, and she suddenly grabs the big lunk and snaps his neck? “I wanted to win,” Nwaba said of her featured role in “The Gaucho Games,” a take-off on The Hunger Games produced by UCSB Intercollegiate Athletics.

It was appropriate that the video was scripted for Nwaba to emerge victorious, because the senior from Los Angeles was the most accomplished of Gaucho athletes in 2011-12.

She snapped several records while winning Big West Conference track-and-field championships in the heptathlon, 100-meter hurdles, and high jump. She placed second in the NCAA heptathlon at Des Moines, Iowa, earlier this month behind Oregon’s Brianne Thiesen, who won her third straight title and posted a score (6,440 points) that has been surpassed only by Jackie Joyner-Kersee in collegiate history. Thiesen is Canadian, thus giving Nwaba (5,927 points) the distinction of being the top American in the NCAA meet.

Nwaba has flirted with the 6,000-point threshold that signifies world-class potential in the heptathlon. At the Sam Adams Invitational in April at Westmont College, she scored 5,986. Take her marks from that competition, and substitute the personal-best time of 2:15.06 in the 800 meters that she ran at the NCAA meet, and she would be well over 6,000. In both meets, she lost points in the long jump, falling a foot short of her 18’10” best.

All that is significant because Nwaba will be vying for a berth in the London Olympics next week at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon. To make it, she would have to finish in the top three, as well as score the Olympic qualifying standard of 6,150 points. Track & Field News has projected Nwaba to place fourth. The co-favorites are Hyleas Fountain, the Olympic silver medalist in 2008, and defending national champion Sharon Day. Third on the form chart is Bettie Wade, a former Michigan State athlete with a personal best of 6,143.

Nwaba, 23, is the youngest of the contenders and knows that she should have an even better shot at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. She intends to keep training in Santa Barbara. “She’s been looking better and better,” said Josh Priester, the UCSB assistant coach who introduced Nwaba — a hurdler at University High in West L.A. — to the heptathlon.

Her mother, Blessing Nwaba, will attend the Olympic Trials when the heptathlon is contested June 29-30 at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field. “I always do well when she’s around,” Barbara said. Her whole family was present for another big event last Sunday. Nwaba received a degree in sociology, with a minor in speech and hearing, at UCSB’s commencement ceremonies.

“I made it,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, keeping up in school while doing track. I saw it through. No one can take that away from me.” Nwaba has five younger brothers and sisters and said, “I wanted to set an example for them.”

Ryan Martin is another UCSB athlete who received his degree last weekend — with a double major of business economics and art history — and will go to Oregon with Olympic aspirations. Martin is an NCAA All-American in the 800-meter run after finishing fourth at Des Moines. The champion was Charles Jock from UC Irvine. Martin and Jock were Big West rivals, staging classic duels for four years in the conference finals. Jock won the 2012 showdown in 1:44.75 to Martin’s 1:44.77 — times that rank them third and fourth among Americans this year.

Martin still is a long shot to make the Olympic team, as the trials tend to bring out the best in veteran runners. Three former U.S. Olympians — Oregon Track Club standouts Nick Symmonds and Andrew Wheating and four-time national champion Khadevis Robinson — are in the field.

There will be three rounds of the 800, beginning with the quarterfinals Friday night, June 22. If Martin can get through to the final — no easy task — he has a late kick that may serve him well. The key is for him to hang close to the pacesetters, one of whom could be Jock. “I’m ready to run fast,” Martin said. “It’s been a hectic week with graduation and moving out of my apartment, but now all that’s behind me.”

Martin was a sprinter at Santa Margarita Catholic High in Orange County. UCSB head coach Pete Dolan developed him into a formidable two-lapper. He will try to make it a big week for Gaucho athletics and give Santa Margarita another wow moment, after the school’s junior golfer Beau Hossler briefly led the U.S. Open last week.


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