Ones to Watch: One decision that changed everything for Jona Efoloko

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Jona Efoloko wining the 2018 England Under 20 Championships. Picture: JHMSport

2018 couldn’t have gone much smoother for sprinter Jona Efoloko.

The 19-year-old clinched 200m gold at the World Under 20 Championships, earning himself a personal best of 20.48s in what was without a doubt his greatest moment in the sport.

In his own words, “all the hard work paid off, all the long winter sessions, the training and the parties missed with my friends”.

Success also included winning the Northern and national junior titles, but the Manchester-born athlete has faced a few twists and turns in his short career too.

In 2017, the Sale Harrier triumphed from the depths of despair to finish the season with a European Under 20 silver medal. But were it not for two key moments, none of it would have happened.

“That whole year was just crazy,” says Jona, “I false started in the national championships which meant I thought I wouldn’t make the European Under 20s, because there were three other guys who were running the same times as me so it probably took me out of the equation”.

“The selectors weren’t actually going to pick me until one of the other three guys got ill and wasn’t able to run. So that’s literally the only reason I got into the team because of pure coincidence”.

“So when I went to the Europeans I ran the heats quite relaxed and felt good, but throughout the whole year I’d been having problems with my IT band which stretches down to your knee and your calf, which meant the morning after the heats I woke up feeling a bit of pain down there, which the physio sorted out but didn’t completely get rid of”.

“Then when it got to the semi-finals I stumbled during the race which aggravated it a lot more and meant I basically had to finish it and run flat out with an injured calf. After the race my calf was in so much pain and the physio tried everything to fix it and by that point they started asking me if I was going to run in the final or not.”

Things certainly seemed to be slipping away at that point, with Efoloko’s season-long problem coming back to haunt him at the most crucial time in the season.

As he sat down, nursing his injury and contemplating his entire season, it was time for Efoloko to make an important decision.

“At first I wasn’t sure if I would actually compete,” says Efoloko, “but then I thought ‘I came all the way here, I can’t just pull out I have to run’. So I remember five minutes before we had to go to the call-room Leon Baptiste who was one of the coaches looked at me and said ‘Jona, do you know if you’re going to run or not?’ and literally in that split second I just said ‘yeah I’m going to run’.

“When we were sitting in the call-room I basically took myself out of the equation for medals and was just sitting there really wanting my team-mate Toby Harries to win. I was just saying to myself ‘go for it and if you pull up then that’s fine, whatever happens happens’.

“So from the start of the race I just went for it and I think I was about fifth coming off the bend. Then with 180m gone if you watch the video of it you can see I just look across because I thought ‘wait am I in second place?’ So I just ran hard into the finish and went to celebrate with Toby because he’d won but then I realised I had to go over and find out where I’d finished because I didn’t know!

“I was just staring at the results board and then as soon as my name popped up in second I just went crazy, the GB guys in the stands were shouting, it was incredible.”

The young sprinter summoned every ounce of what was left to overcome the odds and realise a dream. Pure mental strength had taken him over the line and brought him the silver medal. His injury was so severe that the race proved to be his last act of the season, but the pain only served as a reminder of his achievement.

“I was running on pure adrenaline” says Jona, “because the next day when it all died down my calf was dead and they had to pull me out of the relay because I was struggling to even walk let alone run. So I don’t know what came over me during the final, I feel like the silver medal was just written in the stars.”

His performance gave him the belief and confidence to take his sprinting to the next level, which he certainly did. The European runner-up clinched the national under 20 title in June with a PB in only his second race. The biggest obstacle this time was combining it with “hectic” final year studies in sixth form, but his motivation was strong.

There was a  sense of hope in Jona’s mind that he could once again overcome the odds on the big stage. “At the start of the season I thought there was no way I’d win,” says Jona, “but as it progressed I got quicker and ran 20.79 in windy conditions at the trials, so after that I thought maybe, hopefully a medal would be possible. Embed from Getty Images

“Then when I had my two weeks of tapering before the worlds I’d say they were probably the best sessions I had in my life. I felt so quick, so confident and my mentality totally changed, so going in I said to myself ‘if I run the way I’ve been running I don’t see why gold isn’t a target’.”

The young Brit had also benefited from competitive rivalry with Charlie Dobson – who he beat by a tenth of a second at the nationals – even if the Colchester Harrier had a slightly faster personal best.

Dobson then pushed Efoloko all the way in Tampere. “Throughout my years competing I’ve usually been the number one guy,” says Efoloko, “so as time goes by when you’re at the top people say you’re not as hungry as the people chasing you, which is true.

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“But last year Charlie was the number one guy really because he had a better PB. So it kind of changed my mentality because now I was chasing. That was also what drove me throughout every session and through recovery. I’ve really enjoyed having that rivalry and I’m also looking forward to many more years.”

While Jona finished the season off as the main man both in the British and world under 20s, the coming years will of course be a much bigger challenge altogether.

The newly turned senior will have a huge new bunch of strong sprinters to contend with, as he moves up from under 20 level. Along with moving to London for university, it’s a season of big transitions as Efoloko tries to kick on from an incredible season.

“At first moving from Manchester to London was quite a big jump,” says Efoloko, “the first two weeks I had the chance to explore and get used to it. In Manchester I was just so used to being able to get a bus to wherever I wanted, but in London it just takes ages to get anywhere!

“I’ve got some friends there that have been at the uni for a few years so that’s been helpful. I’ve still not found any Manchester United fans to talk to yet though! I’ve seen quite a few Arsenal and Chelsea fans so I’ll probably have to look a bit harder.”

Jona has also been adjusting to a new coach, now being under the tutelage of the highly-regarded Michael Afilaka. In doing so, he has had to move on from John Smith, who had coached him from the age of 12.

“It’s been quite a noticeable difference,” says Efoloko, “Back at home with John Smith it was just my group, the coach and the assistant coach. Now you’ve got the head coach Michael, the assistant coach, strength and conditioning, nutrition and it’s just a lot more technical, which is kind of what I needed just to make the step up into seniors.

“It’s a big change, but I’ve adapted quite quickly and I managed to equal my indoor PB this season in my first race, so it’s looking good.”

However, the big tests ultimately never end in athletics, with the step up to seniors this year set to pose many more big challenges and rivals for the world junior champion. But when Efoloko looks back at the “crazy” 2017 season that saw him come back from the abyss, he definitely won’t be short of belief that he can defy the odds.