Croydon Harrier Lawrence Okoye made history in Munich last night when he became the first British man ever to win a discus medal at the European athletics championships.
The 6ft 6in sometime NFL defensive lineman was reduced to tears after the final round of throws in the Olympic Stadium, as he realised that his opening effort of 67.14metres had been good enough to secure the bronze medal against a world-class field.
Okoye, who grew up in Waddon and was feared by opponents as a giant wing when playing schoolboy rugby for Whitgift School’s national championship-winning sides, was hailed as a future star of British athletics and was used as a “face” of the London Olympics when, aged 20, he made the final of the 2012 Games.
Despite the offer of a scholarship to study law at Oxford, Okoye opted to try his hand at American football. Yet after being recruited initially by the San Francisco 49ers, Okoye never got a second of game time in his entire NFL career.
In 2019, Okoye returned to Britain and to the discus.
Last month, Okoye, now aged 30, won the silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
But last night’s performance, in a packed stadium in Munich competing against the world’s best, showed Okoye what he had been missing for the last decade.
His medal-winning throw was his best since he set the British record in 2012.
“It felt great straight away,” he said.
Okoye’s best throw was eventually overtaken by a championship record of 69.78m from Lithuania’s Mykolas Alekna, while world champion Kristjan Čeh of Slovenia placed second with 68.28m. The Croydon Harrier’s bronze is nonetheless the first medal won by Britain in the discus since the European championships were first staged in 1934.
Wiping away the tears as he conducted a round of media interviews, Okoye said, “It’s been a tough year for me in a lot of ways and to do what I did today just meant the world to me. It’s not something that I can describe.
“To medal in this field after some of the things I’ve been experiencing, I couldn’t really hold it back.
“Everybody that throws discus knows I’ve had a big throw in me for a long time and it felt great to get it out. Obviously, I wish I could have gone a bit further but this is hopefully the start of big things for me.
“I think the Commonwealths showed me what’s possible and it opened my eyes to a whole new world. Being on that podium, there’s no feeling like it and I just wanted to get back there again.
“I said back then that would be a breakthrough moment for me and it looks like it has been.”
Okoye wasn’t the only south Londoner to shine on the big stage last night, as Herne Hill Harriers’ Katie Snowden placed fourth for Britain in the women’s 1,500metres final won by team-mate Laura Muir.
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