When she was just 16 years old, Joy Udo-Gabriel displayed great bravery and maturity that belied her age, envisaging a career path that would have seen her combine two tedious extremes: studying Law and being a professional Athlete.
Such tenacity then had no doubt propelled her to enviable heights of representing her country at different international championships, with a deluge of medals to show for it since breaking onto the senior scene at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.
Her stellar contribution to Nigeria since her international bow three years ago in Gold Coast, gliding through in her 100m heat to finish 2nd in 11.42s, has seen her earn some veteran status already even though her career has just begun.
Not everyone would have absorbed that sapping pressure at that age, for some it could be overwhelming. However, this bravery could be traced back to 2015 when she was still an upstart, coming to compete at the Top Sprinter auditions in Benin.
Udo-Gabriel knew what she wanted, and made it clear when asked how she intended to shuttle between Law and Athletics. “The race is for the legs and the Law is for the brain”, she said, birthing the famous quote she has now come to be associated with while denouncing any notion that she couldn’t effectively juggle through the demands of both.
Her precocious talent has never been disputed. Afterall, she was the fastest Secondary Schoolgirl in Lagos from 2014-15 and won local competitions for Star International College in Ikorodu.
Udo-Gabriel was one of the pioneer athletes of the Making of Champions (MoC) Track Club when it set off in 2016, and she has been a beacon of hope to other younger athletes in the club who look up to her for inspiration. She has had to work her socks off and nothing was handed to her on a platter.
Being in the club for a few months, it was clear where her career was headed when in 2016 she went under 12s for the first time in the 100m at the Akure Golden League. That remarkable time of 11.87s for someone her age at the time, saw her get invited for her first Senior National Championships in Sapele.
It was an Olympic year, and the Nigerian Trials wasn’t an open event at the time, it was strictly by invitation. So, if Joy was getting invited to strut the track with more established athletes like Blessing Okagbare who would go on to win the Nigerian title that year, it was surely a big deal for the then 17-year-old.
That Sapele voyage really shaped her mindset on what she could achieve, hugely influencing the boom and wide acclaim she pulled off in her 2017 season, knowing that the bar had been raised quite high from 2016.
To return a then Personal Best (PB) of 11.65s in her first race in Abuja in 2017, put her in good stead as the fastest rising athlete in Nigeria. She had gained admission at the University of Lagos and although it wasn’t the Law Degree she initially pinned for, her immense potential saw her bag a three-year student-athlete scholarship from ARCO Group, one of the first of its kind for a Nigerian athlete.
Not only was Joy the fastest Junior athlete in Nigeria, she rather punched higher than her weight and surprisingly pushed for the National team even though she would have still been roundly celebrated if she was content with being dominant in the junior cadre.
So when she finished Top 3 at the Commonwealth Games Trials and got selected to run in the 100m, she grasped it with both hands, making it count. Her parents and siblings stayed up all night to watch her run in Australia, shouting themselves hoarse when she emerged from the call-room.
She was just living her dream, meeting her idol Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce at the Games Village who didn’t compete then. Her desire was reinforced, particularly to also impress her family who cued into her Athletics quest, keenly tracking all the meets she was competing in.
Joy would go on to run the lead leg for Nigeria’s 4x100m team in Gold Coast,
helping the country win Bronze and it was what cemented her place in the Nigerian relay team, passing on the baton in four races in two years across major Championships, including the World Relays. In fact, she would have equally started for Team Africa in the 4x100m at the Continental Cup in Ostrava if the contingent from Africa had arrived early in Czech Republic.
Her stock rose rapidly in 2018, finishing the year with three senior medals, winning
Bronze in the 100m at her first African Championships. She had already set the
tone when she clinched Double GOLD medals in the 100m and 200m at the ECOWAS U20 Championships in Ghana.
Inevitably, a potpourri of media houses canvassed for interviews, seeing how she had evolved into a national athlete since MoC snapped her up and transformed her into an athlete of repute in just two years. Huge credit to Udo-Gabriel who gracefully handled her rise to stardom and did not cower under the spotlight despite how tasking the demands on a top athlete could be.
Although she was considered one of the favourites for the National Sports Festival (NSF) 100m title, it was that sort of championships that would throw up a surprise winner. She did get on the podium with a Bronze, claiming two victories in the rounds en route the final. It was a good way to end a hectic 2018 that saw her travel to three continents, fully embracing the professional life.
For the first time in her blossoming career, Udo-Gabriel and the MoC management team opted to commence her 2019 season abroad, securing an invite alongside her club teammates Jerry Jakpa and Emmanuel Ojeli as the only Nigerians at the Gaborone International Meet. She finished 2nd in the 100m in 11.56s, but she had already triumphed earlier in the 200m, winning in 24.14s.
Part of the trip included a detour in South Africa, and having been confirmed for a
meet in Potchefstroom, she jettisoned it for a National Call-up for the World Relays in Yokohama, quickly returning home to travel to Japan. Such has been her pivotal influence, which was evidenced in the monstrous lead leg she ran to give Nigeria a big lead in the 4x100m at the Championships.
Having just turned 20 in 2019, in two years she had become an established Nigerian athlete, an unrivalled mainstay in the team. However, there was still one missing accolade in her buffer: the Senior National title.
In 2018 she won the 100m Junior title in 11.56s but became a victim of an administrative lapse after the Nigerian Athletics Federation failed to secure visas to Tampere for the World Junior Championships. This was not the first time she suffered such fate. In 2017, Nigeria did not send a team to Algiers for the African Junior Championships as well.
Due to no fault of hers, the Junior Championships where she would have further enhanced her profile and pedigree, slipped from her, throwing her straight into the murky waters of the senior category at just 17. It makes her accomplishments even more worthwhile because she broke a lot of sweat to get there.
Traveling to Europe for the first time in 2019, she competed across meets in Italy before returning home for her second National Championships in Kaduna. Three round victories: 11.49s, 11.51s & 11.58s (-1.2) handed her the crown she has so craved for.
That was the first time she would win a Senior National title, and it just buttressed
how far she had come since she joined the MoC Track club, becoming the club’s first athlete to win Junior and Senior titles respectively.
Deservedly earning her place to the African Games in Morocco, she got to the 100m final, narrowly missing out on a podium placement finishing 4th in 11.44s. She would go on to lead a young Nigerian quartet to win GOLD in the 4x100m.
Then she got a taste of the World Championships later in Doha, and as has come
to be the norm, she took the lead leg for Nigeria in the 4x100m, finishing 6th in 43.05s.
2020 was to be her defining year, culminating in her going to the Olympics for the first time. No one knew what was coming, no one prepared for it. The world halted to a novel pandemic that ravaged the planet, grounding life’s activities with Sports caught in the web with a slew of postponements.
“With regards to the postponement of the Olympics (in 2020), I felt it gave me more time to work because I’m yet to meet the qualifying standard…so I wasn’t sad about the postponement of the Olympics,” she said.
Although she would love to secure automatic qualification, there’s another window via World Ranking, and having earned valuable points as National Champion, she’s in a strong position. If she retains her title and wins more points, she could be one of three athletes running the 100m at the Olympics.
Her achievements are laudable, significantly being one of the youngest athletes ever to win a National Senior title at 20. By the time she qualifies for Tokyo, she would have been to every major championship for Nigeria, and she doesn’t turn 22 until June.