British discus thrower knows he has the potential to be a global contender, but now he just wants to prove it
The first senior major championships medals of his career arrived for Lawrence Okoye in 2022. Yet, despite securing Commonwealth silver in front of a home crowd and a memorable European bronze in the discus, he was not satisfied with his year’s work. “I’m a bit sick and tired of these missed opportunities,” he sighs.
The opportunities to which he is referring in particular are his failure to reach the World Championships final in Eugene last summer, which followed on from a Tokyo Olympics to forget in 2021 where he couldn’t produce a single legal throw. These are the performances which stick in his mind. The ones which gnaw away. The ones for which he wants to atone.
Okoye knows there is an impression of a talent not quite fulfilled. He was only 20 when he shot into the spotlight at the London 2012 Olympics, having qualified for the final with his last throw. Having reached 68.24m earlier that year – a distance which would have been enough for Olympic silver – on the day all he could manage was 61.03m and 12th place.
He didn’t give himself time to build on that start, though, as discus throwing was soon left behind for the NFL in America. The now 31-year-old was part of the sport for around six years, spending time with the San Francisco 49ers, the Arizona Cardinals, the New York Jets, the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins, mainly as a practice squad member.
“I learned more about being a pro,” he says. “I learned about different cultures, different sporting cultures and a lot about myself, about success and adversity.”
The frustration with that team environment, though, came with not being in charge of his own destiny. He had gone to American football without a long-term plan and a return to discus came in 2019. No one had a vintage year in 2020 but, in 2021, Okoye enjoyed his first full season since 2021, winning 20 competitions.
Tokyo, however, was the one event which didn’t follow the positive trend. Okoye is reluctant to talk about the Olympics in detail and doesn’t want to appear to be making excuses for what he calls a “disaster”. The frustration was intensified by feeling like he was in the shape of his life, as well as the fact that the humidity in Tokyo made him struggle to grip the discus securely. Normally throwers put saliva or chalk on their hands but saliva was banned at the time because of Covid.
“Given that I don’t use chalk regularly I didn’t want to start using it in the Olympics but the discus just kept falling out of my hands,” he says. “It was so wet in my hand. It’s such a crazy thing to happen. I wasn’t able to put it out there and I put a pretty good season to waste.”
The next global opportunity came in Oregon, but the pattern of things not quite going to plan just when they needed to continued to repeat. Okoye finished 13th in qualifying for a final where 12 go through.
“I was in phenomenal shape in Oregon, technically in a great place,” he says. “I was in a groove and I let myself down big time because I had a great opportunity to get a medal there. In the warm-up I actually threw about what would have got a medal in the final. It was incredibly disappointing.”
The good thing about 2022 was that, like buses, more championships came along all at once. That Commonwealth silver, with a throw of 64.99m behind Australian Matthew Denny, meant the healing could begin.
“The Commonwealths were another awesome experience, which really helped me because I was so disappointed after Oregon,” says Okoye. Though he adds: “I probably should have thrown quite a bit further that day. I was just a couple ticks off but I was really happy because it allowed me to get over Oregon and gave me some confidence going into the Europeans.”
In Oregon, the first five places had been filled by European throwers, making the discus at the Munich European Championships a truly global competition.
“All the top dogs were there,” says Okoye, and this time he did himself justice with 67.14m to take bronze. It was a mark which would have put him fourth at the World Championships.
“To get a medal in Munich meant a massive amount to me but, again, when you look back at Oregon, it just highlights how much of a missed opportunity that was and I’m a bit sick and tired of these missed opportunities. That’s why I’m really focused this year on trying to get the best out of myself in Budapest.”
The challenge will be to break the cycle of frustration and produce the big throw when it matters most.
“It’s just one of those things with this sport that energy in doesn’t necessarily equal energy out,” adds Okoye. “You can put all the effort in, day by day, try your hardest in training, do your recovery correctly, but unfortunately it’s just about having that finesse on the day and, if you don’t, you’re going nowhere.”
The issue with which Okoye has to regularly wrestle is his belief that he has “73m worth of power in my body”, which therefore means he is not exactly elated if he produces 63m.
Achieving the optimal throw requires a lot of attention to detail and a lot of technical aspects to go right, but it also requires the athlete to be loose and free, throwing with rhythm and fluidity.
The man tasked with helping Okoye to get there is Zane Duquemin, a former international thrower. “Zane can read me very well,” says the Briton. “I think that is an under-rated part of coaching because a lot of coaches think that the athletes should mould to the coach when really, at the elite level, it’s the coaches that need to mould themselves to the athlete, and that’s something that Zane understands really well.”
Now to find out if that understanding can help this undoubted talent hit the peak of his powers right at the moment when he needs them.
» This feature first appeared in the June issue of AW magazine, which you can read here