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Hammer thrower changes nation to USA, hungry for track worlds

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EUGENE, Ore. — Days before the Ohio hammer thrower was scheduled to compete and represent Nigeria at the Tokyo Olympics, she was told she couldn’t.

About a federation error regarding drug testing. On his 25th birthday.

“Beyond heartbreaking,” said Annette Echikunwoke.

No chance of walking in the opening ceremonies either (his team uniform didn’t arrive in time). The only memory was a fake practice throw inside the Olympic hammer ring.

All of this led her to this: Changing countries, a daunting task with her application finally arriving at the last minute before the US nationals. She secured a place at the world championships, where she will wear red, white and blue.

That’s why she celebrated an All-American way when she qualified: a juicy burger and fries at a fast food joint (no milkshake, though, it’s dairy-free).

“Honestly, it feels very redeeming,” Echikunwoke said of Team USA as she competed for her new team on Friday in the world championship hammer throw preliminaries. “I’m so grateful.”

Echikunwoke (pronounced: eh-CHI-koo-wokay) grew up in Pickerington, Ohio, the oldest of four children. Her father, Godwin, works for the state government as an auditor. His mother, Christiana, is a nurse. Both are from Nigeria.

Family pride. That’s why the standout pitcher of the University of Cincinnati decided to wear the green and white of Nigeria last summer in Tokyo. She won a place by winning country trials.

First, a rumbling that something is wrong as the Nigerian team trained out of town days before the Summer Games. Paperwork issues with drug testing leading up to the Olympics, they heard. Still had to be settled.

“I was like, ‘No way is that going to happen,'” Echikunwoke said.

As an NCAA athlete, she said she wasn’t tested so frequently, just when she won the indoor national championships in 2017. But along with others in a similar situation, she thought everything would be settled.

“Not once,” she said, when asked if anything was wrong. “That’s the craziest part: I feel like I usually have a premonition if something is wrong.”

That’s why the ultimate decision blinded her: she was disqualified by the Athletics Integrity Unit, which oversees anti-doping athletic endeavors. There were 20 athletes, including 10 from Nigeria, who were barred from participating in athletics at the Olympics because they failed to meet doping test requirements prior to the Games.

The IAU requires athletes from countries classified as “high risk” due to deficiencies in their testing programs to undergo three unannounced, out-of-competition tests in the 10 months prior to a major event.

Echikunwoke explained that the Nigeria Athletics Federation (AFN) has not put in place the appropriate tests for its athletes. She says, in an Instagram postthey “left us in the dark about this whole drug testing problem until the last minute when we were left helpless”.

The AFN did not respond to emails from The Associated Press.

“I would definitely consider this the most traumatic experience of my life,” she said. “Because it was just very unexpected.”

Echikunwoke – whose name translates to ‘leader of men’ – went to counseling to come to terms with the grief. Mom also helped.

“She was like, ‘You have to forgive them. … You’re the one holding that anger and bitterness towards them,’ Echikunwoke said. “That helped me tremendously.”

Around December, she contacted World Athletics, the sport’s governing body, to inform them of her intention to change countries to the United States. The paperwork, she thought, would be simple.

Not really. She waited and waited.

In the meantime, she trained – hoping be approved in time for the US Championships, which were still months away. But the closer the event got, the more anxious she and her trainer, Susan Seaton, became.

“There were days when she was a little doubtful and I encouraged her,” said Cincinnati cross country/athletics director Seaton. “Then there were days where I lost a bit of my faith in all this heist and paperwork and stuff and she comforted me. We just kept ourselves sane and thought, “Hey, worst case scenario, we’re getting better.”

Official word that she had been approved to compete came early on June 22 – a day before she was supposed to compete at the nationals in Eugene, Oregon.

Echikunwoke boarded a flight from Ohio to Oregon – with a stopover in Denver – and arrived that night. She showed up the next day eager to win a place on her new team.

His second throw of the competition was 73.76 meters (242 feet), which was enough for third place and a world championship berth for Team USA.

“She wanted to make sure the world could see what she’s capable of,” Seaton said. “Because she got so close to the (Olympic) dream that every athlete has at some point. It was taken away from her, the opportunity to compete and compete against the best in the world.

To celebrate a year-long and emotionally draining journey, she took the burgers and fries route through a fast-food chain called “Five Guys” after Nationals. The funny thing: This was actually the meal she wanted on her recruiting trip to Cincinnati years ago, with Seaton and her family asking for pasta instead.

“A loop moment,” Echikunwoke said of the burger experience, in addition to representing a new nation at a big meet. “I’m thrilled – thrilled to represent Team USA.”

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