It was upon belatedly receiving her Olympic bronze medal in 2018 that Marilyn Okoro realised she still had more to give athletics.
Ten years after being part of the 4x400m quartet that initially finished fifth in Beijing, Okoro – alongside Christine Ohuruogu, Kelly Sotherton and Nicola Sanders – was finally presented with her medal at the 2018 Muller Anniversary Games after the Russians and Belarussians were subsequently disqualified.
And it was while standing alongside her team-mates on the podium – all of whom have now retired – that Okoro, who was once touted as the next Dame Kelly Holmes, decided to give it one final shot and try to reach Tokyo 2020.
Recalling the occasion in an interview with SportSpiel, the 35-year-old said: “I’ve had three medals given back in retrospect and that was probably the most powerful one.
“I stood on the podium alongside Chrissie, Nicola and Kelly and they’ve all retired whereas I thought I want to still go back out there, I still can compete, I haven’t changed my lifestyle so much where it’s not realistic anymore.
“It’s the only one where I’ve been given my medal and I was really emotional because I was like ‘I was good enough!’
“I was in that place where I was questioning what I had to show for the last 10 years or so of service. And then this was like being told to believe in myself because whether you’ve got a medal or not, I am the same me, I still ran that time. I just needed to look back at my journey and appreciate what I’ve done.”
— SportSpiel (@SportSpielPod) January 5, 2020
Had she been awarded that medal at the time, Okoro’s career could have been so much different.
Just one year before she had also been part of the team that won 4x400m bronze at the 2007 World Championships and looked to be approaching the peak of her powers, leading to the comparison with Holmes.
But a combination of factors, including injuries, saw her controversially not selected for the 800m at London 2012. That was despite having achieved the ‘A’ qualifying standard and reaching the final of the 2009 World Championships and the semi-finals two years later.
Shortly after London, Okoro was one of several high profile athletes to have their funding withdrawn. However, despite threatening to quit the sport, something within her told the Shaftesbury Barnet Harrier that she should continue with athletics, a feeling that was ignited further upon finally being handed her Olympic medal.
“It was my selfish moment and I remember Jeanette Kwakye came to interview me and I said I couldn’t speak because it took me back to getting kicked off funding – you get a letter and it says ‘you’re not a global medallist’ and I actually was,” she said.
“It was just about rallying around the people that really wanted to support me and trusting that my body could do it and I needed to lead with my mind, which was lagging behind.”
Our Moment is Now … incredible celebration with my Team mates #DelayisnotDenial #4×400 #Beijing #Bronzemedalist #TeamGB #10yrwait #worthit #drugscheatsout #perseverancepaysoff pic.twitter.com/Iol5gCtyef
— Marilyn Okoro OLY (@mokoro4) July 23, 2018
However since making that decision a year-and-a-half ago, Okoro has once again been plagued by injuries that have severely limited the amount of time she has spent on the track.
She again seriously considered quitting the sport before a chance meeting with former team-mate Jenny Meadows provided her with an opportunity to train in Wigan.
It’s been an unsettled few years for the London-born athlete, who has spent time training in America, but this provided her with an opportunity to really knuckle down, get herself fit and give everything she has got leading up to Tokyo.
All of these experiences have also taught Okoro that reaching an Olympics isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. While the opportunity to once again race on sport’s biggest stage is an enticing prospect, she also wants to make sure she can truly enjoy the sport that has dominated her life.
“I’m really proud that I’m still in sport and that I’ve managed to turn around the last 18 months and have not given up,” the 2010 European 4x400m silver medallist explained.
“I’ve found an amazing training group, an amazing coach who really has compassion for his athletes and has given me a lot of ownership over my training because what I’ve learned is that I do know me better than anyone else.
“I’m just trying to avoid a lot of the pitfalls I’ve had in the past and trust my knowledge, trust my experiences over the years and get back out there.
“The goal has always been to get back after 2012 and bounce back from that. Life doesn’t always go in the trajectory you think but I’m healthy – I had to remind myself this is where I wanted to be, healthy with no injuries, because the last five/six Decembers there’s been a niggle.
“I’m training a lot smarter, enjoying it because that’s what this next season is about and definitely still on that road to Tokyo. We’re still eight months away so I’m not going to jinx myself but I’m in a happy place and happy athletes perform well.”
— Marilyn Okoro OLY (@mokoro4) December 18, 2019
When the Olympics come around this July, Okoro will be less than two years older than Holmes was when she achieved her amazing double in Athens.
That Games was the first time Holmes had been injury-free before a major competition. This forthcoming event could be the first major competition Okoro has entered injury-free for a long time.
Despite the challenges she’s faced over the last few years, the similarities between Okoro and Holmes are still very much evident.
She couldn’t could she?