April 21, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
You wouldn’t know it to see her run at this weekend’s ACC championships, but Leslie Njoku’s trail to top-notch hurdler was not natural.
If not for her persistent older sisters, the Georgia Tech senior might not even be a track athlete. She played a little volleyball in elementary school, but wasn’t much inclined to do much else athletically.
Once the indoor season of her freshman year passed at McNair Academic in Jersey City, N.J., her sisters – Jennifer and Nina – had other ideas.
“Both of them ran track, and they were great track athletes,” Njoku said. “They called me and said, `You’re not going to run track?’ “
With a little more sibling push, Njoku took up the sport, initially competing primarily in the 800-meter run, and adding in some work in the 400 among other events. She eventual broke most of her sisters’ records.
Then, “I was a sophomore, and one day my coach was like, `You know what, I think you should try the 400 hurdles,’ ” she recalled. “She just put me out there, and I remember this like yesterday: it was really, really rainy. And I ran well.”
Chalk one up to understatement. By the end of that sophomore season, Njoku had earned a spot in the prestigious Nike outdoor nationals, and she finished third. As a junior, she won the thing, and Tech was recruiting her like mad.
She’s currently ranked No. 21 in the nation in the 400-meter hurdles, and competes in the 100-meter hurdles as well.
“A number of schools recruited me, but when I came on my visit I fell in love with the campus, the girls on the team, the weather . . . it was the perfect fit,” she said.
Momma loved Tech, too. Beatrice Njoku did a little research, and learned that Tech has a highly-ranked industrial engineering program. That’s what Leslie majored in for a while, but she evolved. Now, she majors in building construction.
“I’m in building construction. I want to get into project management. I like the residential, multi-family housing business,” said Njoku, who should graduate in May of 2012. “A teammate told me about building construction. I have an uncle in the same business, and he’s doing great.
“I really like that it’s hands-on, and it’s not the same project every time. I also like that he’s very wealthy. I can work with that.”
Change is nothing new for Njoku, neither at Tech nor in track. With the help of assistant coach Adriane Lapsley, a former Tech All-American, she said, “My foot speed has gotten tremendously better. I used to take long strides; now I’ve shortened my stride but my steps are a lot faster.”
Njoku, who is of Nigerian heritage, has met important people at Tech.
One of them was this big dude, also of Nigerian descent. Name’s Gani Lawal, used to be a basketball player on The Flats.
Drafted last year by the Phoenix Suns of the NBA, Lawal bounced up and down a little bit between the Suns and the D-League last year before a knee injury ended his season fairly early.
He’s done most of his rehab in Arizona, but he returned to Georgia recently, and is with the Tech men’s and women’s track and field teams in Durham, N.C., at Duke. This will be his first chance this season to see his fiancé, Njoku, compete.
“We had a math class together as freshmen, and I used to see him [in the cafeteria] all the time,” Njoku said. “We talk every day.”
Competition began Thursday in the ACCs in limited fashion. The bulk of the action will be today and Saturday. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.