Ijeoma Ezechukwu’s improbable rise from a Nigerian border school student to a United States high school track and field champion is quite a feat. It’s even more impressive when considering she did it amidst a global pandemic.
Ijeoma, whose name means “safe journey”, immigrated with her mother, Evelyn, in January of 2020. The pair moved 5,150 miles away from their home of Lagos, Nigeria, to what was then a foreign land in Shirley, Massachusetts. Two months into their stay, a nationwide lockdown was enforced, further complicating an arduous trek.
“It’s been a whirlwind experience,” said Ezechukwu, whose classmates refer to her as “Ijay”. “The last two years…they went by fast. When I arrived, everything became locked down. Just researching different school systems and enrolling was hard.”
Ezechukwu likens her previous track and field experience to “the Harry Potter movies”, explaining that Nigerian border schools separate their students into team colors, competing against each other in “inter-house sports”.
“We did the basic stuff - the 100, 200 and 400 [meter races] - but it was different,” she said. “We had a three-mile walking race where [field judges] distinguished between walking and running. We had another race where you had to run, fill up a cup of water, and run back without spilling it. Coming here and hearing people talk about [personal records], that was all new to me.”
The 17-year-old refers to running as a “family-inherited passion”, calling her mother and brother “long-distance runners”. Ezechukwu’s own rise to stardom began in first grade when a lackluster effort in an 80-meter dash resulted in a last-place finish.
“I didn’t want to run,” said Ezechukwu, laughing at the irony. “I turned my back at the starting line when they said go. When I saw the winners getting awards, I asked where mine was, and they said, ‘You didn’t run.’ I was upset. But the next year I made sure to be at the front of the line. And I won.”
After enrolling as a junior at Ayer Shirley High School, Ezechukwu was approached by English teacher Chris Donovan, who moonlights as an assistant coach on the Panthers’ track team.
“He asked me, ‘How good are you?’ “ she recalled.
Donovan, the team and all of Central Massachusetts would soon find out. In her first tryout with the team, Head Coach Mike Seguin says the staff knew they lucked out when Ezechukwu chose to attend Ayer Shirley.
“Ijay was one of those kids you can immediately see the potential in,” said Seguin, who has been coaching for 20 years. “We knew we had a raw gem. We just had to polish it.”
Ayer Shirley sprinting Coach Andrew St. Germain was tasked with refining her technique, getting her body position, knee, and arm drive to an elite level. Ezechukwu had never had to drive out of sprinting blocks in Nigeria. The self-described “perfectionist” pushed herself so hard to learn new techniques that she ended up missing time due to injury.
“She had to learn how to stay healthy,” Coach Seguin said, citing recurring shin splints.
At less than 100 percent, Ezechukwu still helped bring home a state championship in the 2021 spring at the Central Massachusetts Division II Meet, medaling in the 4x100 relay alongside teammates Jordan Kosakowski, Ava Murphy, and Chandra Eli-Johnson.
In the fall, Seguin and the Panther brass encouraged Ezechukwu to come out for the cross-country team to strengthen her running form. The fruits of that autumnal labor paid dividends the following winter as Ezechukwu won a state championship in the 55-meter dash, breaking the school’s record with a mark of 7.32 seconds. The team’s bus was rewarded with an escort home from the Massachusetts State Police.
“That was one of my ‘WOW!’ moments,” she said. “I am a family kind of person, and not just in terms of blood. I feel family is everyone who is entangled in your life. The coaches called me up to the front of the bus. We called my mother who was at work. My friends were cheering me on. I was crying tears of joy. It was one of the best moments of my life.”
Ezechukwu closed out her career at Ayer Shirley this past month, winning three state championship medals at the MIAA Division 6 Girls Outdoor Track & Field Meet on May 31. In each event - the 100, the 200, and the 4x100 relay - she shattered the Panthers’ previous outdoor school records.
“We didn’t do the police escort this time, though we probably should have; she deserved it,” Coach Seguin marveled.
The Ayer Shirley senior was also honored as the school’s first recipient of the Harry Agganis Student-Athlete of the Year Scholarship. The MIAA-endorsed scholarship, which amounts to $1,500.00, goes to the student-athlete that best exemplifies the highest achievement in the areas of academics, athletics, and community service. Ezechukwu was the salutatorian to the Class of 2022. The track star is multilingual, speaking English, French, Spanish, and Igbo, the principal native language of the Igbo people, an ethnic group from Southeastern Nigeria. “She’s had an immense impact on this school,” Coach Seguin said. “And it’s not just athletically. That same drive Ijay brings to the track, she brings to the classroom. She just loves learning. She’s also the kindest and nicest person to everyone. Ijay is a great role model to look up to.” She has chosen to attend Boston University this fall, majoring in social and behavioral sciences, while minoring in African Studies. She will compete on behalf of the Terriers NCAA Division I track and field team. “I toured Boston University and deep down, it just felt right,” said Ezechukwu, who applied to 13 different universities, gaining acceptance from 11. “From the academics, they had, to the athletic facilities, and the dorms, everything just fit into where I see myself the next four years.” She smiles when asked about overcoming the adversity of coming to a foreign land, adjusting to a new culture, as well as a New England weather climate she comically refers to as “bipolar”. The task, she insists, wasn’t easy. In fact, many times along the road to success Ezechukwu questioned whether she could make her dreams become reality. “Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t enough, or that I just couldn’t handle things anymore,” she said. ”But the support from my family, my friends and the coaching staff was always there. They kept pushing me. I didn’t know if I could do it, but I’m happy to have brought myself to the limit that I could.” She credits her mother, Evelyn, as the “driving force” in her life. “All the lessons she’s taught stay with me every day,” she said. One of those lessons was to return to the track in second grade after suffering the first and only last-place finish in her career. Racing, Ezechukwu says, is the ultimate test determining whether you have worked hard enough. “I feel this amazing sense of adrenaline thinking about all the weeks and months of work I put in - and that it all gets determined in less than 12 seconds of time,” she said. “I love the rush. The rush you feel is the peak of everything.” Seguin, who shares Ezechukwu’s wish that she had arrived in the states earlier, says he has no doubt she’ll shine on the collegiate stage. “If you give her a few years of strength training and more technical work, then put her around other elite athletes, she's going to match what they do,” he said. “It won’t be very long before she is scoring for the BU Terriers.”