Sunday 16 June 2019

Irish sprint sensation finds extra gear after veganism move

Joseph Ojewumi warms up at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow. Photo: Sportsfile
Joseph Ojewumi warms up at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

He has warp speed, potent power and the sculpted physique of a Greek statue, but his is an engine that doesn't run on meat, eggs or any of that overpriced protein milk. "Broccoli and spinach," says Joseph Ojewumi. "Nuts, a lot of beans, brown rice, oats."

For the past six months the 21-year-old has been Ireland's fastest vegan and, as of the past two weeks, Ireland's fastest man. National 60m champion. The first Irishman to contest that event at the European Indoor Championships in 10 years.

Born in Nigeria, raised in Tallaght, educated in DCU and now working in Athlone, he will stand behind his blocks in Glasgow this morning, say a little prayer, crouch down, stand up and unleash all kinds of hell in the six-odd seconds that will pass in an electrified blur.

"I don't want to be one of those who gets the standard, gets out there and gets knocked out in the first round," he says.

"I honestly want to go all the way. I want to get to the final."

A tall order at his age, but Ojewumi has long defied convention. After all, many shook their heads and laughed last summer as he ventured off down his vegan path.

It began as an experiment, Ojewumi scanning YouTube during the off-season, his mind an open book, when he came across a documentary, 'What the Health', which offered an unashamedly vicious critique of the health impact of meat and dairy products.

Biased as it may be, leaving any trace of objectivity on the cutting-room floor, it struck a chord with Ojewumi.

Sprinters are typically the alphas of the athletics world - most would sooner give up breathing than animal-based protein - but Ojewumi figured veganism could make a key difference in his training.

"It was tough, I can't lie," he says.

"The first week I was feeling a bit weird but I said, 'let's see if I can carry it over to pre-season with some light gym work and running,' and I was like, 'yeah, I can manage this.'"

When he re-joined his training partners at Tallaght AC for the hard graft of winter training, he had his eureka moment.

"It helped my energy with the endurance training, I was able to keep up with Simon (Essuman) who's a 400m runner and it was crazy, I was always left before. I thought, 'it has to be the diet'."

As an insurance policy against deficiencies he supplements with iron and B vitamins, and while his breakthrough indoor season is likely more down to an injury-free winter - his first in quite some time - there's no doubt the absence of meat hasn't harmed his progression.

"No going back," he says.

Ojewumi's is a talent that has long been on the radar but is now fully, finally, in bloom. His father was a high jumper, his mother a part-time sprinter, though it was his sisters who paved the main path for him into athletics.

The family left Nigeria when he was six, first settling in England before relocating to Tallaght when Ojewumi was nine.

He was always aware of his speed on the school playground, but only when he was 14 and a student at Deansrath Community College did he commit to athletics, soon winning the Irish schools 100m title off little training.

After that a friend invited him to Tallaght AC where he came under the guidance of Daniel Kilgallon, who has coached him ever since.

Studying

While studying for his degree in chemical and pharmaceutical science at DCU, injuries often hampered his progress, Ojewumi twice tearing his hamstring and held back at times by tightness in his groin.

After graduating it took him several months to find full-time work but in January he accepted a role in finance in Athlone, from where he commutes several times a week to train with Kilgallon's group in Tallaght. It's a tough routine, but he's not complaining.

"Daniel always said this to our group: 'no injuries, no excuses'.

"You might have things going on, but as long as you don't get injured, you have no excuse to not perform. I do have a busy schedule but I have one thing I want to do which is run fast. I'm going to do that, regardless of the circumstances."

At the Irish Indoor Championships that was exactly what he did, beating seasoned internationals like Leon Reid and Marcus Lawler to take 60m gold in 6.78.

"I was expecting within myself to win but I wasn't saying it out loud," he says.

In Glasgow today, Ojewumi will make his first individual appearance for Ireland at senior level. At his age, little will be expected, but mediocrity is simply not in his make-up.

"I want to prove some people wrong, to turn some heads," he says. "To do myself proud."

Irish Independent

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