Maggie Okul – First Year in the USA
19 year old Maggie Okul has been a Kingston athlete since the spring of 2012 when captivated by a love of athletics that was nurtured by inter school competitions representing Hessle High School. At that time Maggie considered herself to be a sprinter a javelin thrower, long jumper and shot putter. After many months of contemplation she finally made the decision to go down to the Costello Stadium and see what the sport could offer her. The first people she met were the Hammer coaches Dave and Diane Smith at their 5 pm training session and whilst she was adamant that she wanted to throw the javelin and shot Dave and Diane persuaded her to try a few throws whist she waited for the discus and shot coach who would be there at 6 pm. Maggie thoroughly enjoyed the hammer experience she quickly made friends and settled into the training group where she steadily improved under the expert guidance of Dave and Di and she made her club debut at the 2012 Kingston September Open meeting.
2013 saw her announce her arrival on the national scene where she won the first of her seven consecutive hammer gold medals at the Northern Championships, two at under 17, four at under 20 and in 2017 her first senior title. 2013 also saw her win bronze at the UK School games and make her representative debut for the Northern England team at the Welsh International meeting in Cardiff and she was also selected for the 2014/15/16 Welsh Internationals, where in 2016 she was the captain of the Northern England Women’s team. Other major achievements are a treasured silver medal on the biggest stage of them all at the English Schools Championships and a bronze medal at the National Championships.
In the autumn of 2015 Maggie was contacted by Marva Hall from the Prospects of America organisation who for many years have been monitoring the leading youth athletes in the UK and giving them the opportunity of a four year scholarship at universities in the USA, to qualify for this chance the athlete must be ranked in the top 5 in their discipline in the UK, at that time Maggie was the No. 2 ranked hammer thrower UK. She was well aware of the scheme as a rival and good friend Becky Keating had gone out to a university in Missouri in August 2015 where she was thoroughly enjoying herself.
A meeting followed with a representative of ‘Prospects of America’ with the Maggie and her parents. CV’s and videos of the athletes in action were prepared and forwarded to the head coaches at universities throughout the United States. She had offers from a lot of the universities and deliberated long and hard before choosing the Stephen F Austin State University’s offer of a full 4 year scholarship on the campus in Nacadoches Texas which included all accommodation and tuition fees paid for. She left the UK on the 22nd of August 2016 her first flight on her own.
The first thing she encountered was the stifling heat with the temperatures in autumn, winter and spring varying between 25 and 30 degrees centigrade every day and in the summer it soars to 45 degrees. Fortunately every building on campus including the student accommodation is air conditioned. She settled in to a routine of lectures and studies in kinesiology and nutrition throughout the morning and training twice every afternoon, equal emphasis is placed on both academic ability and athletic prowess and both are of extreme importance.
The competitive athletic season runs from January until the end of May and the Stephen F Austin University competes in the ‘Southland Conference’ which consists of 13 universities situated throughout Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, South East Louisiana and New Orleans.
Maggie gained selection for the first indoor meeting at the Texas A&M Team Invitational at College Station on the 14th of January, where she was one of 60 athletes selected to represent the team her event being the 9.08 kilogram weight throw, she was one of only 7 first year (freshmen) throwers to make the athletic squad and she held her place in the squad throughout both the indoor and outdoor track & field seasons.
On the 27th of January she was at the ‘Houston Invitational’ indoor meeting throwing the weight once more and seven days later she was a member of a trimmed down team of 20 athletes who flew to Colorado for the ‘Airforce Team Challenge’ at Colorado Springs where she threw a new PB of 15.79 metres with the 9.08 weight for an excellent 5th place against tough opposition. A week later she was back in action in Frisco, Texas at the ‘Dunamis College Classic.
February the 22nd took her on an 11 hour coach journey to Birmingham, Alabama for her first major championship meeting in the United States at the ‘Southland Indoor Track & Field Championships’ part of a 50 strong team from Stephen F Austin University. The weight competition had so many entrants that they had to throw in two pools with only the top 8 in each pool progressing to the final. Maggie was the only freshman in the competition everyone was older than her and more experienced in the weight throw which doesn’t have a high profile on the British throws circuit and is usually contested at Masters events. She came mighty close to making the final finishing in 9th place in pool 2 which was a commendable performance.
Her next throwing action came on the 17th of March in Fort Worth, Texas at the TCU Invitational event where she was on much more familiar ground out in the hammer circle and her outdoor campaign got off to a rock solid start with a fine 2nd place finish.
The 24th of March saw her down on the Rio Grande at the ‘Roadrunner Invitational’ in San Antonio, Texas where she took 4th place. On April the 7th she had her first competitive action at her home track at SFA University in Nacadoches where she was selected to throw the hammer and javelin at the ‘Sketchers Performance Carl Knight Invitational’. She threw a season’s best of 53.36 metres with the hammer to take 3rd place and she launched the javelin out to a new PB of 32.11 metres for a 5th place finish. San Marcos, Texas was her next destination at the end of April for ‘The Bobcat Classic’ event where another good performance saw her taking 3rd place.
Her final competitive action in America for this year took her on a long coach journey down to New Orleans along the bayou’s overlooking the Mississippi river for the 3 day meeting of the 2017 ‘Southland Track & Field Championships’ which were staged at the ‘Tad Gormley Stadium’ in New Orleans on the 12th, 13th and 14th of May. Maggie was a member of a team of 56 athletes who made the journey down from Stephen F Austin University and her hammer competition was scheduled for the final day and was contested by a field of 20 throwers.
She had a nightmare opening fouling on her first two throws and she had to get the next one in or be eliminated from the competition, for her third throw she dropped down to three turns (all top hammer throwers go off four turns) to ensure she got one in and qualified for the three extra throws, her effort of 52.82 metres did not only that but put her straight into first place. As the competition progressed the leading throwers were all jockeying for position and a throw of 52.93 metres her best effort of the day put her in the bronze medal position where she remained.
In the team competition the Stephen F Austin Women’s team were the Championship winners.
Maggie’s thoughts on her first Major Championship medal outside the UK were ‘I was disappointed because I wasn’t at my best and I should have done better but I’m delighted with the medal and they told me that if I hadn’t won the medal then my team wouldn’t have won the championship and that really picked me up’
How was she finding life in Texas? ‘I love it everything is very professional and they have a better way of life a different way of looking at things’
How is she finding the training regime is it the same as home? ‘You have your own weights coach and strength and conditioner, nutritionist and trainers (physiotherapists back home) your life over there is built around your sport’.
Maggie is back at home until August and is in full training with the rest of the ‘Hull Hammer Squad’ four nights a week at Costello and she will be donning her Kingston vest and competing for the clubs senior team in their league campaign in the Northern track & field League.