As a freshman at UCSB, Barbara Nwaba didn’t know what the heptathlon was. Now, it may be the event that takes her to the Olympics.
“I’ve always had big dreams and [the heptathlon] is what I think will get me there,” Nwaba said. “I’m so blessed [my coach] put me in it. I feel like it was meant to be.”
In high school, the redshirt junior from University High School in Los Angeles participated in sprints, the high jump and hurdles. Even during her first season here at UCSB, Nwaba simply specialized in the hurdles. Yet, former Track and Field coach Josh Priester saw something more and began training Nwaba in her sophomore season for the heptathlon, a race that takes place over two days and involves seven events: the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter run, long jump, javelin throw and 800 meter run.
Immediately, Nwaba took to the event. She ran her first heptathlon March 13 and 14, 2009 at the Sam Adams Combined Events and earned a score of 4772, breaking the school record of 4767 set by Erika Bornhorst in 1996.
“My high school coach mentioned [the heptathlon], but I had no idea what it was,” Nwaba said. “Then, [when I was a sophomore], the coach here thought I’d be really good at it. I was really scared, but my first time out I broke the school record, so I was like, ‘I’ll keep with this.’”
Since then, Nwaba’s success seems endless. In 2010, Nwaba was named an NCAA All-American and broke her own UCSB record twice in the heptathlon, including at the Big West Championships, where Nwaba scored 5,552 and won the event.
“She’s done so much for the program and you know when she steps onto the track, she’s going to put 110 percent into it,” senior Ryan Martin said. “Pretty much every time she competes, she’s PR’ing. I know she wants to do great things and I think she’s going to.”
This April at the Sam Adams Multi-Events, Nwaba finished the heptathlon with a phenomenal score of 5,986. The score was not only a personal best for Nwaba, but was good enough to break the overall Big West Conference record. As a result, Nwaba also earned the No. 1 ranking in the nation in the heptathlon.
“That day was so perfect,” Nwaba said. “Day one went really well — way better than I was expecting. I wasn’t worrying, I was just competing. To see how close I was to 6000, it was a great day.”
Two weekends ago in the Big West Multi-Event Championships, Nwaba won again with a score of 5,709 and surpassed the conference record set by Sharon Day four years ago in 2008. “I was a little disappointed by the score, but I still broke the record, so I felt I accomplished something,” Nwaba said. “I’ve come a long way. It was good to get a win there because the first time [I competed there,] I came in third.”
After the victory, Nwaba earned her fourth consecutive Big West Athlete of the Week honors.
“I remember at the beginning of the year I thought it would be cool to get one [Big West Athlete of the Week award], and now to have four is amazing,” Nwaba said. “I’m happy I’m doing so well this year.”
While Nwaba has proven to be the best heptathlete to compete at UCSB, she strives for perfection and is never happy with just a win.
“To get a PR is a good feeling so that reinforces you to keep [training],” Nwaba said. “And I’m competitive with myself.”
The training is strenuous, but for Nwaba, has always kept practice interesting.
“There’s a lot more hours [of practice] because there are so many events, so it’s so hard to get them all in during the week,” Nwaba said. “It takes a lot of dedication when you have to master seven events, but it’s definitely fun.”
The determination may pay off, as this summer, Nwaba will have a shot at earning one of three heptathlon spots at the Olympic Games in London. Like most athletes, the Olympics have been the ultimate dream for Nwaba as long as she can remember.
“In the last Olympics, it [gave] me chills to see [the track athletes] cross the line and win,” Nwaba said. “I want to excel and I know that’s the biggest accomplishment ever, so that pushes me.”
Nwaba’s dream could very well become a reality. She is currently No. 2 in the nation in the heptathlon behind senior Brianne Theisen. The last two years, Nwaba has also taken a step toward her dream by competing at the USA Nationals. Nwaba placed eighth this year, but knows she can do better.
“It was defining to be with girls whose scores were so big, but I knew I could do just as well,” Nwaba said. “I started to feel like, ‘I could beat this girl. I can compete with them.’ I didn’t really believe [my dream was possible] until I was competing [there] with the U.S. National Team.”
Olympic trials will be held in Eugene, Oregon, beginning June 21.
“It’s definitely going to be hard because there are three great heptathletes in the U.S., but she has a chance,” Martin said. “If she competes well in the trials she could do it.”