ITHACA, N.Y.– Ijeyikowoicho “EJ” Onah, a 2018 Ithaca High School graduate and former member of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center Navigators program, represented her city, state and country at this year’s Pan American Under-20 Athletic Championships. She leapt past thousands of athletes to reach the international arena and took home the bronze medal in the long jump.

The 2019 Pan American U20 Athletics Championships were held from July 19-21 in San José, Costa Rica, and it was the 20th edition of the biennial track and field competition for under-20 athletes from the Americas. Last week, Onah returned to GIAC in her Team USA uniform to celebrate her win, and told the young people there to dream big.

Onah, 19, said she never expected to be competing in sports on the international field as a college student and instead focused on qualifying for regional and national events. “I didn’t even know about the Pan American Games until last year,” Onah said. “This was the unexpected icing on top of the cake.”

Her athletic journey began the summer before second grade when her friends motivated her to join GIAC’s summer basketball camp. While she wasn’t a fan of playing basketball, she said she valued the experience because it showed her which aspects of the sport she enjoyed the most: running and jumping. She then started track and field as a member of the GIAC Navigators program, which she joined when she was in second grade. She stayed in the program until she aged out at 15 and continued to be a GIAC teen until she graduated high school. She’s since continued track as a freshman at SUNY Albany.

Onah said the GIAC Navigators program is meant to give students a head start in learning and practicing a sport of their interest by providing affordable lessons and equipment. She said it boosted her athletic career by giving her practice and knowledge about different events at a young age, and thus when she joined modified track and field in school, she already knew she wanted to continue with the long jump. “It was just a matter of me getting to the practices and putting in the work,” she said.

Her Ithaca High School coach, John Baker, said Onah was hardworking and one of the most coachable teens on the track and field team. “She deserves all the credit because as coaches we give them guidance, but they have to get out and execute. And this is what comes to kids who work hard,” Baker said.

Members of GIAC came out to support EJ after her victory at the Pan American Games. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
Members of GIAC came out to support EJ after her victory at the Pan American Games. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Onah qualified for Team USA Juniors at the American East Conference in May, and was told by her coach that she qualified for regionals. But it wasn’t until June that she found out Team USA was selected to travel to Costa Rica and participate in this year’s Pan American U20 Athletic Championships. 

“Not going to say it was luck. It took a little bit of luck but it was mostly hard work, time and play, too. A lot of mental preparation for sure.”

Because competing internationally was “out of the blue” for her as a college student, Onah said her approach to competing was to have a good time and not become overly competitive. “For me it was just about having an experience so there was no pressure on me. I wasn’t expecting to place and I wasn’t expecting to do anything except jump, so that lifted a lot of stress off me. I was just able to go out there and have fun,” she said.  

Onah jumped 6.09 meters, earning her the bronze medal for the long jump and making her just one of two under-20 U.S. women to place in the long jump at this year’s Pan American Junior Athletic Championships. She said the medal was “a nice surprise” and that it assured her that anyone can improve on their athletic skills. “It reminds me that literally track is anyone’s game … those qualification marks you came in with aren’t necessarily what you’re going to leave with,” she said.

Onah’s future goals include qualifying for the NCAA Women’s Indoor Track and Field Championship.

“I’m not against dreaming big. I had a sheet I wrote my Pan American goals on and one of them was the medal, but it wasn’t something that I specifically stressed. It was more like, ‘If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it’s a goal I wanted to get down on paper though. To have the satisfaction of crossing it off it were to ever happen,” she added. “Sometimes expectation is different from reality.”

Onah is currently studying business administration at SUNY Albany and said she plans to “invest in other people’s potential” after college to help students pursue sports just as she said GIAC did with her.

“A lot of people did that with me when I was younger, that’s how I got my start in track. My ability to do what I do wouldn’t have been able to happen if I didn’t have access to gear and equipment that my family couldn’t necessarily afford,” Onah said. She said she hopes to give back and help ensure others can live out their dream. “I hope that one day I can introduce many other people, specifically young girls, into the sport.” 

Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, director of GIAC, said it’s GIAC mission to provide opportunities for kids like Onah, whether it be by standing up against oppression and intimidation or simply providing a community hub and a meal. GIAC is currently in the process of purchasing the former Immaculate Conception School gym with the goal of expanding its community programming and reaching more kids.

“We are so proud of her,” McBean-Clairborne said as the GIAC community welcomed Onah home from the games.

Looking ahead, Onah can see herself pursuing track and field as a professional athlete after college but is focusing on her education, too. “If it happens, that’s great. If not, that’s OK too. No pressure, that’s why I’m in school to get a degree. Being a professional athlete is not always guaranteed afterwards, so I’m also prepared for that reality, too.”     

Featured image: EJ Onah celebrates at GIAC. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

J.T. Stone

J.T. Stone is a contributor for The Ithaca Voice and a 2020 graduate of Ithaca High School. Questions? Story tips? Email him at jt22stone@gmail.com.