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Divine Oduduru: from poverty to pedestal

Texas Tech’s track star has been chasing his dreams since the beginning, and has a lot of achievement to show for it.

Divine Oduduru has become a national sensation in the track world for his dancing, post-race interviews, and encouraging story of rags-to-bags. But just who is this Texas Tech phenom? The committee for track’s most treasured accolade, the Bowerman, believe him to be one of the greatest in the nation. But while Oduduru stands as a finalist for the Heisman equivalent of track & field alongside Grant Holloway (Florida) and Mondo Duplantis (LSU), the road leading to this achievement was bridled with adversity and challenge. Before there was a podium, there was poverty.

Humble origins

Oduduru was born “Ejowvokoghene Divine Oduduru” near Ughelli in Southern Nigeria, 1996. The youngest of ten siblings, Divine worked hard with his father on their small farm to make ends meet for their large family. He has recalled in interviews the difficulty of his early life, “for everyone it was a struggle to survive. We walked to and from school and some days I didn’t eat, I was starving.” But that adversity birthed a very human desire: to escape what felt like suffocation.

Christiana, Divine’s mother and most ardent supporter, was told by Oduduru that he would not go to school in Nigeria. “I knew that I wanted to create a platform for myself and I was determined not to end up the same way as others,” he commented, “she always believed in my dreams.” The first steps were to make a name for himself, and it didn’t take long before he was noticed for his skill in sprinting at his high school.

Road to Olympian

At 16 Oduduru had his first international debut at the African Under-18 Youth Championships. He competed and earned gold in both the 100m and 200m events. Such success propelled him further into the competitive world of track when, four months later, he was at the World U18 Youth Championships in the Ukraine. Oduduru failed to medal in any of his competitions but the experience he gained throughout the process gave him a lot to expect going forward.

In probably his most famous interview, Oduduru made a lot of bold statements that the internet treasured. “I never esperred it” became a calling card as he continued to pop up on the international scene. Humerously he has had time to reflect on the interview and affirms that it was all from the heart. “I was just a young boy excited and privileged to represent my country... I am proud of that interview.” It personified his passion for the sport and would continue to characterize his competitive nature.

Within 12 months Oduduru was back and more competitive than ever - collecting a silver in the 200m event at the World U20 Championships with a 20.25 time. Then in 2015 his progression continued at a breakneck pace with victories in the African U20 100 and 200m events. All of this leading to his historic 2016 performance in Nigeria where he swept the 200m Olympic Qualifiers at age 19 to book his trip to Rio.

While all eyes were on Usain Bolt in the 2016 Olympic Games, a young Nigerian placed second just 0.06 seconds behind the superstar in their preliminary heat. Oduduru, beaming, noted that “it was like dream come true for me, a real privilege. I didn’t say anything to him after the race, I just gave him a hug.” The advancement to the semi-final wouldn’t have the same flair, however, as Divine had groin soreness which landed him seventh and not into the finals.

Texas Tech

Remembering his promise to his mother to not end up the same way as other Nigerians that stayed home, Oduduru entertained scholarship opportunities in the United States. It would be Wes Kittley and Texas Tech that presented the best opportunity for Divine to hone his skills and reach the next level. For much of the 2016-2017 season he still carried around a groin injury which kept him from competing multiple times, but that didn’t completely stop him from collecting two first-place finishes throughout the season.

It was his sophomore year when the American track world starting noticing Divine Oduduru. In the 2018 season, he wowed himself and spectators with a first place time of 20.13 in the 200m event of the NCAA outdoor championship. “It meant a lot to me. I don’t just want to say I was here. I wanted to make my mark,” and he would continue to do so. The 2019 season was prefaced with a need to defend his title and a desire to bring a larger title to the University.

For the indoor season of 2019, Oduduru posted the pinnacle of his own records as well as the world’s. His 200m event time of 20.08, set at the Big 12 Indoor Championship, holds the lead in the world while he also garnered a conference title with a 6.52 time in the 60m event. Oduduru also became a stronghold in the mile relay team which broke into the program top-10 list with their peak time of 3:05.81. Despite excellent performances at the D1 Indoor Championship, Texas Tech only managed to place sixth overall.

The outdoor season for track would become Oduduru’s iconic Texas Tech performance. At Baylor’s Michael Johnson Invitational in April he broke not one but two school records. The 200m saw Oduduru bust the 20 second barrier with an impressive time of 19.76. The sub-20 became the world’s fastest time, a school record and the second-fastest time by a collegiate. Then a few events later he again shattered expectations by breaking the 10 second barrier for the first time in his career, running a 9.94 which was good enough for the school record. In an immediate post race interview Oduduru made a simple comment: “I worked for it and I got it - thank you, guns up!”

The success was far from over. In the Big 12 Championship Oduduru had another sub-10 100m performance when he defended his title with a time of 9.99: first in conference meet history to do so. The 4x100m relay team with Oduduru also notched a school-record and conference meet record of 38.83. Texas Tech would then cruise on to another Big 12 Championship forty points ahead of 2nd place Iowa State. The last item remaining on the team and Oduduru’s agenda for the season was the Outdoor National Championship title.

In early June the Red Raiders took their speed down to Austin to compete in the NCAA Championship. In a field of over 50 teams, Divine Oduduru stamped his legacy. The 100m and 200m events were his to claim with unbelievable command. His 100m performance became his third sub-10 race of the season with a time of 9.86 (video below); good enough for best in the world and college again. Then less than an hour later he posted another incredible sub-20 time in the 200m with a time of 19.97. That back-to-back feat has only been accomplished 12 times in the entire history of track and field, and Oduduru owns three of those twelve.

The better part of this story was that his back-to-back champion effort came after he helped lead the Tech 4x100 relay to a school record (and a top in meet history) of 38.45 earlier in the meet. Divine’s inspiring performance along with the results of his teammates propelled Tech above another favorite to win the whole thing, Houston, whom Divine directly defeated three times. All of it culminating in Texas Tech’s first ever men’s national championship title. Oduduru had worked for it and got it, guns up.

The Bowerman

Following the conclusion of the track season, Divine decided to also close the chapter of his collegiate career to pursue track at the professional level. Through three years his will to work and determination to achieve were second to none, epitomized by his possession of seven in both the program’s top-10 100m times and the top-10 200m times. Coach Kittley reveres Oduduru as the greatest 100/200m sprinter in NCAA history, and Assistant coach Calvin Robinson simply summed him up as legendary in every capacity.

Yet even as the season is over, one race remains unfinished for the Nigerian. Oduduru’s desire to become something great started back in poverty but grew with hard work and direction to place him among the greatest in NCAA Track & Field history. The committee for the Bowerman award, which is awarded to the best male and female athletes of the year, narrowed their list down from a large pool and Divine remained. Unfortunately the award has a long and arduous process of selection and won’t conclude until December. For now, however, there is a healthy amount of consolation that can be had in the fan vote which finalized last week.

A portion of the Bowerman voting is opened to fan votes, which comprises a total of three points of the entire rubric. This year the fan vote exceeded past records with an incredible 53,371 votes on the men’s finalists which was 7,785 more than the previous record. The athlete to run away with the first place votes was none other than the athlete that had done so all year. Divine Oduduru held 48.5 percent of the votes for the men’s finalists - that’s near 25,900 votes! Second place went to Grant Holloway of Florida with 32.3 percent.

Whichever way the Bowerman falls in December there is no quantifiable measure in which we can assess the impact that Oduduru has had on this University and vice versa. If the fan vote is any indication, then we may have even more to celebrate about this young professional come December. Until that time comes we at Viva the Matadors wanted to say THANK YOU to Divine Oduduru for his contribution to Texas Tech and to track & field as a whole.

I never experred it!