He turned his large and muscular back on a career as a professional rugby union player and may yet turn his back on a place at Oxford University too, but the reward, competing at the London Olympics for a likely medal at the dawn of a successful athletics career, is well worth it.
Meet Lawrence Okoye, a big man who has made and will continue to make big decisions over his sport and career.
The 20-year-old from Croydon is the British record holder in the discus, his throw last summer of 67.63 metres ranking him ninth all time in the world.
Nine days ago he threw 66.67 metres at the Mt Sacs Relay event in California, making him the world leader in 2012. His timing is proving to be impeccable.
Not bad considering he had only taken up the sport in 2010!
“I’d like to think I can throw a lot further by the Olympics because I’ve been training hard since August, have learnt so much more about the event and just need the experience of going up against the best at meets around the world before the Games begin,” Okoye explains. “Then? Well, who knows?”
Who knows indeed, although a man with Okoye’s attributes always has half a chance of succeeding in pretty much whatever he chooses.
At Whitgift School in Croydon, serial contenders for the Daily Mail Cup, it was rugby in which the 6ft 6in, 21-stone Okoye excelled in, scoring 26 tries in 24 games in his last year, including one in the final at Twickenham to win the cup.
“It was from ten metres out and I had two men on my back,” Okoye recalls, a man who, despite his huge bulk, can run the 100 metres in 11 seconds!
By then he was already playing for the London Irish Academy and was all set for a gap year after school playing for Esher in the Championship, the division below the Aviva Premiership.
Meanwhile he had secured straight A’s and A stars in his A Levels which meant, that autumn, St Peter’s College Oxford offered him an undergraduate place in their law department for the following year. An Oxford Blue would surely beckon.
Then Okoye’s “eureka” moment came about.
“I always did athletics in the summer and was the best at discus in my school and competed well in English Schools championships, but the truth was I didn’t really know how to throw it but my size and strength was enough.
“Then a friend of mine told me he’d had some coaching and had just thrown 56 metres which, at the time, amazed me. I went to the same coach, John Hillier, and after six weeks I threw 63.92 metres, which turned out to be the second longest in the world ever for my age group. To say I was taken aback is an understatement.”
Okoye thus travelled to the world junior championships where he finished sixth, still with the intention of beginning a professional career in rugby, but a combination of Hillier and his old head master changed his mind.
“John told me I’d make the British team for the London Olympics which, of course, is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and that as I had so much improving to do I could end up doing really well. My former Head agreed so I decided to give it a go. It was the lure of London that did it for me. I started proper training in the autumn of 2011 and managed to throw it a distance of 67.63 metres last July, which broke the existing British record. That was the first time when I felt like a proper discus thrower.”
A proper discus thrower? What was he before then? “I was just so raw and inconsistent,” he explains. “I competed in ten events last summer and it was a steep learning curve but that record confirmed I finally knew what I was doing. From then on I was determined to maximise my chances of being a contender at the Olympics.”
When Okoye says maximising he means just that. Not content with a brutal training regime that began, without any gaps, last August, he has swapped being a student of law for studying the discus, and has turned to the very best.
“Jurgen Schult, the great German who won Olympic gold in 1988 and still holds the world record with 74.08 set in 1986, came to Britain and coached me a little the other week, which was really beneficial. I also study Robert Harting on YouTube all the time, the current world champion from Germany.
“The plan now is to enter at least ten competitions between now and the Games, competing against the best in the world and, with a lot of hard work, I’d hope to be seriously challenging them by August. If I produce my best inside the Olympic Stadium then anything can happen.”
With England enjoying a post, rugby world cup resurgence does he ever regret his decision to turn to athletics?
“Yeah, quite a lot. One of my best mates is Marland Yarde and it hurts a little knowing he’s running out for London Irish and the England Under 20’s now. But the overriding emotion is huge excitement and anticipation. I expect to be at the Olympics, competing in front of a home crowd of 80,000, and I have big hopes.
“I look at what Usain Bolt achieved in 2008 at such a young age, at Yohan Blake becoming world 100 metres champion last year aged 21 and, more pertinently, David Storl, the German who became world champion last summer aged 21 in the shot putt, and followed that up in Istanbul last week with a silver at the world indoors.
“Young men are re-writing the track and field text books when they say discus throwers aren’t supposed to reach their peak until their late twenties. If that is the case then there’s at least 12 years and three Olympics in me, plus the London world championships in 2017. I want to be the best, and that’s why none of this daunts me.”
What about Oxford, though? Will he turn his back on the discus, too?
Okoye shrugs his huge shoulders. “That’s something I’ll worry the day after the Olympic discus final. Oxford won’t keep allowing me to defer year after year, but I won’t be able to re-capture future Olympics and world championships by picking up the sport again in four or five years’ time. You’ve got to grab your chance when it comes along, haven’t you?”
Something Lawrence Okoye appears to be particularly adept at. He has a nice line in putting what he does into some kind of perspective, too.
“A good friend of mine tells me that all I do is chuck a plate around and in a way he’s right. It stops things getting too intense when you look at it like that.”
Lawrence Okoye’s Six Meals A Day Diet:
Breakfast, 8.30: Eggs, pasta, rice.
Mid-morning, 10.30: Protein, more carbohydrates.
Lunch, 1.00: Chicken, pork, fish, vegetables.
Mid-afternoon, 3.00: More chicken, pork and vegetables.
Tea, 6.00: Parma ham, sandwiches.
Dinner, 8.00: Chicken and salad.
Weekly Training Regime:
Monday, Wednesday and Friday: 2 hours gymwork, power lifts, plyometrics, 1 and a half to 2 hours throwing in a cage – Whitgift School.
Tuesday and Thursday: 3 hours of throwing at Lea Valley.
Saturday: 3 hours of throwing at Sutcliffe Park, South-East London.
Okoye says he will have reached 10,000 throws in 2 years in the next few weeks!