April 19, 2012

Barbara Nwaba is through the looking glass




Three years before getting a No. 1 NCAA rating, UCSB's Barbara Nwaba had to take a serious look into the mirror.

Her teary eyes made it difficult to even see her own reflection.

"I was in the bathroom, in a stall ... because I didn't want anyone to see me cry," she said. "It was the last event of my first heptathlon - the 800 - and I expected nothing.

"I looked into the mirror and just panicked."

That's because her teammates were expecting a lot, placing bets that she would beat the school record in her very first try. Her coach Josh Priester had told her that she could get it by running the 800 in 2 minutes, 22 seconds.

"It was my least favorite event at the time," Nwaba said. "But I looked into the mirror and said, 'Just forget it! Just run!'

"I ran a 2:24.7 or something - somebody told me the time, and I was kind of down. And then coach came up to me laughing, and I was like, 'Why are you laughing?'"

It was because her final score of 4,782 had actually beaten the school record by five points - and because Priester knew he had something special.

"Her mark compared to those of several Olympic medalists the first time they did the heptathlon," he said. "The second time she did it, she scored over 5,000 points, which is comparable to a decathlete going over 7,000 points, which is hard to do.

"I knew right away that something was really, really different about her."

Nwaba actually had him at hello, during their simultaneous arrival at UCSB in the fall of 2007. Back then, she couldn't have named the heptathlon's seven events for him.

"Barbara was primarily a 400 hurdler and sprinter," Priester said. "But when I met her, I took one look and was like, 'Wow, you need to be doing the heptathlon.' It was just from watching the way she moved, and how strong a girl she was. It just seemed to make sense.

"I was a decathlete myself, so I had a pretty good idea."

Priester became sure of it after their fall testing.

"We did some overhead, back-shot throws, and stuff like that, and she picked things up pretty quickly," he said.

Nwaba now has to resist peering too far ahead into the looking glass. It could be easy to picture herself at the Olympic Games in London this summer, with her NCAA-best 5,986 points rating among this year's top American scores.

Her total, which she scored two weeks ago at Westmont College's San Adams Multi-Events Meet, barely missed the all-time top 10 in NCAA history.

It also put her among the contenders at the U.S. Olympic Trials, which will be held in Eugene, Ore., in 10 weeks.

"To even have the conversation about the 2012 Olympic Games is crazy to me, because she's only been doing this for 31/2 years - but yes, she is in the conversation," Priester said. "That's the thing about multi-events, everybody has a chance in the top group of six or seven people."

The 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro seem a better bet, considering the average age of an Olympic heptathlete.

"These girls I'm competing with are 27, 28, and have been doing it many more years," said Nwaba, 23. "To see how well they're doing gives me more encouragement that I could be just as good, too."

She made a good first impression on Pete Dolan, UCSB's head coach for track and field.

"Barbara was here for an early summer session before her freshman year," Priester said. "He saw her out on the track, all alone during the summer when no one was here, just running intervals.

"She's a self-starter, and that plays so well into the multi-events. You have to have that discipline and that internal drive."

Some events came easier than others. She admitted that she could've impaled herself with her first attempts at the javelin throw.

"They just kind of went straight up in the air and came right back down," Nwaba said. "I was like, 'Oops!'"

But she won the javelin as well as the high jump at last week's Big West Conference Challenge, while also taking second in the 100-meter hurdles. She ranks among the league's best in five events, let alone the heptathlon.

"She picked up the throws pretty fast, and her high jump just skyrocketed right away," Priester said. "Her first day of the heptahlon (100 hurdles, high jump, shot put and the 200) is world class. Her second day, right now, is the question."

Those three events include the long jump, which Priester said holds her best potential for point gain, and the javelin, where her marks fluctuate widely.

"Her personal best is 152-10, which for a heptathlon javelin thrower is pretty good," he said. "She's not consistent at that level yet, but she's usually between the 130s and the mid-140s."

And then it will all come down to the 800, the same event from which she once sought refuge in a bathroom.

But big girls don't cry, and Nwaba has become one of the biggest in college track and field.

"I remember going to the meets and seeing these big names and going, 'Oh my gosh, it's Sharon Day - this is scary!'" Nwaba said.

They faced each other two weeks ago at Westmont, where Day scored America's top heptathlon mark of the year.

Nwaba's reaction?

"I've gotten to know her, and it was good to see a familiar face," she said.

The face in the mirror is getting familiar to many, as well.

Mark Patton's column appears on Thursdays and Saturdays. Email: mpatton@newspress.com

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