Women's Sports: "I fought to the end," Anyika Onuora's last goodbye to GB Athletics

Today, I write this letter to GMSW because today, I am walking away from athletics. This is not the way I envisioned my retirement, so how exactly did I know it was the right decision? For me, this happened in three stages and thank you to GMSW for giving me the platform to explain.

After a tough season of not performing the way I usually do, I ran my last race at the Loughborough LEAP meet this August. The race didn’t go well, but my coach Benke Blomkvist was still optimistic I could ‘pull it out of the bag’ and defend my 400m British Champion title in a few weeks. Taking two days off before I returned to training, I felt ready again. I had some tempo runs to do with my training partner Tom. We approached the start line. He asked if I was ready, he counted down 3….2…1. As soon as he said, Go! I glared at the start line, frozen, and at that moment, I knew my career was over. 

I completed the first rep and ignored the thoughts and feelings that were going through my mind, instead, I filled it with conversation from Tom as we walked back between reps. I finished my workout and drove home. My head was still spinning as I sat in my house. Was this over? I began crying. Loud. Alone. My whole career flashed before my eyes as I sat and cried for 14 minutes straight. As soon as I stopped, the first question I asked myself was, ‘Do you feel better now?’ My tears turned to joy, smiles and even laughter as I continued to look back on all that I achieved in Athletics for almost 20 years.

I called my friend and former training partner, US hurdler Danielle Carruthers. She had always warned me of this day – realising it’s time to walk away. She reminded what I’ve achieved and to always look back to see how far I have come. I’ve had a fantastic career. But I was still uncertain and unsure about my decision. My 2019 season was over, but I was again doing some workouts in the hope that I could shake this feeling off. It wasn’t. Physically, I was there but mentally I was done.

A few weeks later, I drove to Birmingham to watch my teammates and close friend Shara Proctor perform to book their spots for Doha World Championships. I got to Alexandra Stadium and couldn’t get out of the car. I could feel my mind and heart racing. Sitting in the stands watching this meet, knowing I should be out there performing was complete torture for me. I wasn’t quite ready to let go. Instead, I drove to a road close to the stadium and chose to sit in my car until the meet was finished, congratulating Shara afterwards.

Uncertain about how I was feeling about not being part of the team in Doha, I still chose to sit and watch the championships. Happiness swept through me as I watched the athletes perform on the world stage. Not an ounce of regret, frustration or resentment. I knew I was finally ready to let go.

My trajectory through the years in the sport wasn’t perfect but somehow exceeded my potential winning every global medal you can achieve as a British athlete becoming a European, Commonwealth, World and Olympic Medalist, most of which came after I switched events from 100-200m to 400m.  

There were many highs and success but more lows than I could ever imagine: Injury, surgery, poor performance which at times meant financial instability. The death of my father in 2012 had the most significant impact on me. It was always his dream to watch me compete at home games. He still had fighting words of wisdom which to this day, I always say to myself when I’ve wanted to quit a workout or find an excuse to not do an exercise in the weight room.

I almost left the sport in 2012, but thankfully I didn’t. In doing so, I had the most successful years of my career. Another low was contracting malaria ten months before the Rio Olympic Games. To this day, I have no idea how I managed to recover, get back on track and win a medal. I guess that’s my dad’s fighting spirit forever instilled within me.

I had no idea what impact I had made to others throughout my career until I returned home to Liverpool a few weeks after Rio. I returned to my home track at Wavertree with my mum. Everyone excited to see me and my Olympic medal. I had two races left in Zagreb, Croatia and Newcastle before the season ended, so I decided to do a workout on the track. Before the workout started, a young girl came rushing over to ask if I was Anyika Onuora. I told her, yes. Her eyes widened with excitement, asking to see my medal as she asked me question after question. She said she had been watching me on tv for years and had always wanted to meet ‘her local hero and idol’. I was touched. 

This young girl reminded me of myself, a young black girl 11 years old wanting to pursue her dream after watching me compete in Athletics. She sat with my mum, wearing my medal around her neck and watched me do rep after rep of 150s, never taking her eyes off me for a second. I asked her to join me on the last rep, and without hesitation, she got on the start line. When the session ended, she said she couldn’t wait to tell everyone who she met. That was one of the most memorable moments in the sport, giving back but leading the way for others to follow.

I leave the sport knowing that it is in good hands with the current role models in fellow Brits and recent World Champions, Dina Asher-Smith, fellow scouser Katarina Johnson. There are also a lot of inspiring athletes on the world stage like Alyson Felix, Shelley Anna Frasier Pryce and Nia Ali, all of whom became world champions this year after recently giving birth.

These women made statements by telling the world you can have it all and still come back to your best. It was also good to see my teammate James Ellington make a miraculous recovery and return to the track after his horrific accident in 2017. I’m sure his return next year will be one to watch as he bids to make the team for Tokyo.

So what’s next for me?
As I step into the next phase of transitioning from track to the “normal” life, I’ve had opportunities in broadcasting; which I intend to continue to pursue. 

I also intend to continue my work with the NHS to raise the awareness of black blood donors in the UK. Most importantly, I want to continue to stay involved in my sport by giving back through mentoring and using my voice to help the current athletes as well as young athletes coming up the ranks. Whatever I chose to pursue, I will do so without fear of what’s to come.

I recently returned from a surprise birthday trip planned by my boyfriend to Morocco. It was the first time in my life I’d turn up to the airport, not knowing where I was going, and it was a great feeling. As someone who has spent years flying from one country to the next with everything being scheduled down to a tee, it was nice to sit back and relax for once. I will always look back on my career with great memories, gaining friendships and experiences I could only dream off. It was all worth the fight to the very end.

Anyika Onuora 

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