“I am just someone that is fuelled by ‘no’. I have had so many ‘noes’ in my lifetime. Starting with my mum, she didn’t even want me to run.”
At a time when many athletes are facing uncertainty and adversity that requires mental strength, Olympic, world and European medallist Marilyn Okoro has a lot of advice to give. The middle-distance runner has dealt with a number of issues around non-selection, funding, and anxiety as she has been telling me in the England Athletics Podcast.
One of the biggest challenges she has faced is proving to her mother that being a sportswoman was the right career choice. Just as Marilyn’s enjoyment of athletics blossomed at boarding school, there was a hurdle at home to overcome.
“She hated it, that I went to this amazing school, and I told her I wanted to be a runner. I think that day she was just devastated.”
“She’s quite strict, a Nigerian mum, and so I really had to prove to her that I was going to be a model student and also this running thing was serious and she finally took me seriously when I got to the Olympics.”
The 35-year-old jokes that her mum is her “biggest fan now” but this battle for acceptance is just one of many times that she has had to fight in her career.
“I don’t think I’ve had many years where I’ve just had a smooth run into a championships, definitely not of late. The last five or six years have been pretty problematic.”
There has been some soul-searching during this period, but one long-awaited moment gave Marilyn a big boost. Athletes will wait a year to challenge for Tokyo Olympic medals due to coronavirus, but it took a decade for Okoro to receive her bronze from Beijing 2008.
The British 4×400 metres relay quartet, also involving Christine Ohuruogu, Nicola Sanders and Kelly Sotherton, were bumped up two places following the disqualification of teams from Russia and Belarus.
“That was the one that really hurt the most, but also gave me a bit of zest. Standing on that podium in the London Stadium really just restored my confidence because I realised that I was always good enough and I was an Olympic medallist.”
With that new-found belief, Marilyn has quite literally found a spring in her step of late, taking part in a charity dance competition, which compliments her love of singing jazz and gospel that has provided entertainment at functions including weddings.
As someone who is clearly very outgoing, the Shaftesbury Barnet runner understands that some may be dealing with a loss of routine or even identity at the moment. “I’m a firm believer that your network and your environment is the most important thing, so I can sympathise with athletes that are struggling.”
Marilyn had also planned to retire after one last shot at Olympic selection in 2020, so she is having to rethink her future. Currently based in Wigan with old rival Jenny Meadows and coach Trevor Painter, her advice is to “stay motivated, check in with each other and keep the group chats going”.
“You can still run, maintain that six feet apart in open spaces. We are socially distancing but a lot of the time people are going to be in families. It’s a chance to cook together, sing together, and if everyone just does their part, there is no reason why we won’t come out of this the other side, stronger than ever.”