Anyika Onuora on Olympic glory, battling malaria and her future in athletics

  • Kobe Tong

“I couldn’t fall asleep because I honestly didn’t think that I was going to wake up.”

Anyika Onuora always cites strength as the key to her success in the 400 metres and her incredible determination – both physically and mentally – is present throughout every facet of her life. Just 10 months before collecting a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics, the Liverpudlian was facing the toughest battle of her life at St. John’s Wood Medical Practice.

Talking exclusively to GiveMeSport, Onuora reflected on her life-threatening battle with malaria and how that inspired her to further glory in the sport she holds dearest. “I basically couldn’t move, I was super weak and couldn’t walk to the bathroom,” the 34-year-old recalled. “They had to fill the bed with ice and once my body melted it, the bed would just get refilled and refilled. 

“The nurse was like ‘don’t fall asleep, don’t fall asleep,’ so I had the fan on and I had the television on loud. The people in the room next door must have been like: ‘what’s going on there?’” Even looking back on such a traumatic experience, Onuora still carried that same sense of humour – partnered with an unashamed smile – that has made her so adored by British athletics fans.

Onuora had contracted the disease during a family visit to Nigeria and upon returning to the UK, was forced to drive herself from Loughborough to London on the brink of collapse. “I just stayed awake, I was drifting in and out, and then they moved me to UCL hospital where they had a tropical disease unit. I was basically in quarantine for a week,” she explained.

Onuora’s battle with malaria

During those emotional moments in the hospital, Onuora’s father was often at the forefront of her mind. The British champion always reflects fondly on her upbringing and nobody served as more of an inspiration than her dad, who she sadly lost after a battle with illness. Yet, his passing has done little to temper the wisdom he passed on and Onuora was sure to grab malaria by the horns.

“It was very emotional at the time, that’s why I was so conscious, being aware and not falling asleep,” the Olympian recounted. “I remember having the conversation with my dad when he was deteriorating in health, so he couldn’t speak but he could hear you. So, he would be in hospital, my mum would be on speaker phone and would be like: ‘speak to your dad.’

“He always just wanted to know how you were, he wanted to leave the Earth knowing that his kids were good, so he just wanted us to have normal conversations. So, that was coming back to me when I was going through the same thing, that’s why I was just really conscious of staying awake. I was just like: ‘there’s no way this malaria is going to kill me, I have to stay awake.’”

The emotion of Rio 2016

It couldn’t have been more fitting then, that Onuora would be standing on the Olympic podium just a few months later, joined by a 4x400m relay team that didn’t even know of the suffering she’d been through. Achieving a career-long goal was the ultimate gratification for the Brit who – in the early hours of the morning – couldn’t hide her emotions any longer in the Olympic village.

Reliving the cathartic moment as if it was yesterday, she explained: “It was relief, I guess, because it’s not just something that I’ve been waiting for over the last year or two years, it’s literally been my whole career. One thing I know that I’m really bad at, is that I don’t give myself enough credit for a lot of the work I do but I am very, very happy with what I did in that moment.”

“I was so exhausted and conked out, I just stared at the medal, was like: ‘wow, this is real, this is actually real’ and went into the bathroom to let it all out. I didn’t want to wake anyone!” Teammate Shara Proctor was fast asleep just a few metres away, having tried to stay up as long as possible, but allowed Onuora to slowly digest what had been a childhood ambition. 

The challenges of university and London

However, reaching the pinnacle of sporting achievement is impossible without overcoming challenge and sacrifice, something Onuora knows very well from her university days. While her fellow students were out enjoying freshers’ week, the 400m runner maintained an unwavering focus on athletics and doing her family proud with a degree in economics.

“That was the life I chose,” Onuora stated with a justified sense of pride. “It was like working, training, studying. There was no socialising, no going to freshers’, there was no uni nights whatsoever. Any uni nights, would involve me being in the library at the computer, sitting there until 3am, finishing an assignment or getting my dissertation done.

“Once I graduated, my dad was like: ‘you can do whatever you want and do whatever you want to pursue.’ I guess things shifted after I moved to London and after the Beijing Olympics, I knew I could do this full-time but man, the next four years there was so much going on. I went through injuries, ups and downs in my career, financial stress and worries, living in the ‘Big Smoke’ wasn’t easy and it never is, even now.”

‘Ohuruogu should be given a damehood’

One of the key lessons that Onuora was keen to pass on, was the need to celebrate victories – words of wisdom which marry all-too well to the position of black females in sport. Onuora has spoken openly about growing up in a predominately white school and the lack of appreciation for athletes like Denise Lewis and Christine Ohuruogu in spite of their success.

Drawing from her own experiences, the sprinter explained: “I think the media have to do the job of actually listening to our stories but again, talking about the wins and the successes. Not everything is about being sexualised, we go through enough of that as women, we don’t need to be sexualised every day or in any given interview that we do.

“Me being biased, but take Christine Ohuruogu for instance, she’s like the GOAT in track and field, one of the most successful British athletes ever, but people only want to talk about what came before. Even now, to this day, she’s not seen as one of the best and one of the greats, that girl should be given a damehood!”

Looking to the future

Onuora – referencing her article with Black Ballad – added: “I wanted to tell my story about my body image issues but also speak about other black females, who have also been scrutinised for having a different body – like Simone Biles, like Caster Semenya and Serena Williams, who has always been vilified every time she steps on the court.”

However, of all the challenges Onuora has wrestled with throughout her career, perhaps the most immovable is the forward march of time. Now 34, the Brit is proving that age is just a number with her success in 2018, but is equally aware that Tokyo 2020 could very well be her fourth and final Olympic games.

Yet the prospect of the next two years is one that inspires great excitement in the Olympian and recovering from the disappointment of last year’s Commonwealth Games is driving her forward. “I love a challenge, every year is different and every time I go back into training, it gets harder each and every year,” she openly admitted. “I know I’m not getting any younger.

An inspiring athlete

“I went to the Commonwealth Games, came back and I felt like I was lost, I felt like a failure but then once I started training again, I remembered what I’d achieved, what I’d gone through and I was like: ‘there’s no way you can cut the season short, don’t give up!’ I remember all those doubts that ruled my mind so many times and I made a list of dos and don’ts.

“The reason I do this event is because I’m so strong, your strength lies in that last 120m or last 50m, so let’s continue to build on that. So, I just continued with my season, went on to become British champion and collected more medals at the European Championships.”

Throw a challenge in Onuora’s direction and you better be ready for the strong will that’ll meet it. Branding her own journey through life and sport as ‘crazy,’ it’s perhaps for that very reason that the Olympic medalist has become such an unyielding inspiration and role model for up and coming athletes. There is, after all, so many who can relate to her struggles.

From those late nights in the library to fighting for survival in the hospital, Onuora has come out the other side laughing and with an Olympic medal to boot.

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