At the 2018 Nigerian Junior Championships in Ozoro, Delta State, a frail Mercy Umoibang had just qualified for the Girls’ 400m final, running her first ever electronic time of 59.76s, but the endearing image of that moment came after the race, when the then 16-year-old kept wailing: “My leg, my leg.”
Three years after that exasperating moment, Umoibang’s exploits at the recently concluded Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) Evaluation Meet left her in unbelief, having upgraded to an incredible version of herself that left her almost questioning if she had actually churned out such a performance, or if she was perhaps daydreaming.
Umoibang shook off all shackles and surprised everyone including herself when she stormed to a new Personal Best (PB) of 54.66s to win the women’s 400m Final B, an accomplishment that helped her secure instant qualification for the World Junior Championships later this year in Nairobi.
For someone who had scaled so many daunting hurdles, that triumph wasn’t sufficient to highlight all the challenges she’s had to surmount to get to this level. Her path was riddled with impediments, but her grit deservedly earned her the moment in the sun.
Having bagged a three-year student-athlete scholarship from Niger Delta Exploration and Production plc (NDEP) in 2017, it was an uplifting moment that revitalized the fortunes of her family, moving from the military cantonment where she attended Command Secondary School in Ikeja, to the MoC Girls’ House, and switching to a top private school, Princeton College in Surulere.
Umoibang has been a promising athlete from when Making of Champions discovered her at a local competition in Lagos, called ‘The Skoolimpics’. Her trajectory was impressive, and it was what led to NDEP taking a leap of faith to invest in her education and career for three years.
In 2018 when she got to the 400m final at the National U20 Championships in Ozoro, she massively improved from the time she ran in the heats, shaving off more than 2s to run a new PB of 57.49s, then went on to improve on that five days later at the MoC Grand Prix to set a new PB of 57.27s. Her 200m that year was equally solid, clocking a PB of 25.51s in Lagos.
Umoibang had to strive hard, and although she was out for a long time, she still bounced back to make the Lagos team to the 2020 National Sports Festival in Benin which was postponed because of the pandemic. This is largely owed to her perseverance in weathering the storm and turning the corner.
What works well for her is the ability to apply a late surge in the home straight, which was evident in the heats, turning 4th place to 3rd and running a then PB of 55.83s. Qualifying for the 400m Final B, there was less pressure, but the adrenaline rush was still there.
Drawn in the same final as her teammate, Blessing Oladoye, it was the day she finally broke loose from the latter’s shadow, forging a new path for herself when she peeled away from everyone to emerge a clear winner with a time of 54.66s, meeting the World Juniors qualifying standard of 54.85s. Her instinctive celebratory reflexes summed it up, letting out a cathartic scream of relief. She’d been through the worst, but here she was confirming she had made it to Kenya.
“I am so excited because all the hard work, the crying in training…it paid off,” Umoibang said on what it meant running that new PB. “I was expecting a 55 low, not a 54. When I saw a 54, I was like ‘my God is this me?'” she further added.
Now that one Umoibang has secured her World Junior Championships ticket, the second Umoibang, 16-year-old Maria, aims to make history and join her older sister, and Mercy is backing her to make the step-up as well. “She’s (Maria) this type of person, whatever she wants, she gets it, so I know she can (qualify), she’s a very hard working person” Mercy said of her younger sister.
Don’t bet against the two Umoibangs making it to Nairobi. Maria with a PB of 12.07s, needs to meet the 11.85s standard to qualify in the 100m & 24.35s in the 200m. She already has a 200m PB of 24.73s, and it is not inconceivable she could join her sister. For now, it’s Mercy’s moment; Maria’s time will come too.