Chief Mary Onyali, MFR has truly made a name for herself in the track and field world, establishing several prestigious marks on the way. Popularly called the Queen of Nigerian sprints, Mary continues to hold the Nigerian 200 meters record, and is still ranked in the top 10 of the collegiate all time list in both the 100 and 200 meters.
The sport of track and field was never a priority during her early years growing up in Nigeria. Her father passed away when she was a very young child and her mother was left to raise her and younger siblings, a sister and two brothers. As the oldest of four children, much of the responsibility of child raising fell strongly upon Mary. Her mother constantly emphasized the importance of their education and to her, everything else was just extracurricular. The social norm for a female in Nigeria was everything but being an athlete. A woman was to go to school and eventually work and focus on marriage and having a family. Mary was all but interested in this philosophy - she did not want to succumb to the pressures of marrying and having children. Her traits of self will and stubbornness found her going against the social norm. Getting involved in the sport of track and field was mere coincidence for Mary. In elementary school, sports was part of the curriculum and she participated in everything there was. She always seemed to be extremely competitive at everything and always proved to be the best.
Mary continued track and field once she reached high school. She competed in the long jump, high jump and track events and also continued to win. At this level she realized that this was something that she not only enjoyed but was good at. She began to love the competition and the pleasures of winning. She now was drinking, eating and sleeping track. This started to affect her studies and her mom threatened to discontinue her participation in the sport. Mary would not let this happen to her - she loved running, and would do anything as long as she was able to compete. Therefore getting her grades back up to par became a prrority. Inspired by her high school coach who quickly recognized her phenomenal talent, Mary went on to become the team captain of all sporting activities of her school and started to look at athletics from a whole different perspective.
There started to be talks of going to college in the US and perhaps getting a scholarship. Until this point, Mary had not given college much thought. Of course there were the local Nigerian Universities where she could go and pursue her academic endeavors but it wasn't as simple as it seemed. No athletic grants were offered and her mother could not afford her college education. The inadequacy of training and competition facilities would not allow her the success that she had hoped for in the sport. She began representing her school by competing in what was called inter-house sports, which consisted of four groups that would compete against each other once a year and the best of the four groups would go on to compete against other schools. Of course, Mary's group was always picked to represent their school and again she always came out on top. After high school, she continued to run, with hopes that one day she would get news of a college scholarship. She competed and won the junior category championships and went on to compete in the senior category as a junior and also won, but this was where Mary's first disappointment came. By winning the senior category in the 100 and 200 meters she was chosen to represent Nigeria in Ghana in 1983 in her first international competition, but that opportunity was stripped from her with the excuse that she was young and did not have enough experience. She felt she was not taken seriously. This set the stage for her to prove everyone wrong. After that year, she began to receive even more recognition and the opportunity to show her talent. In 1984, she again won the senior division and was this time chosen to go to Kwara. Unfortunately the same devastation struck again - she was again denied her right to compete in the 100 and 200 meter races but was allowed to run the 4x100 relay. These criticisms and lack of faith by her fellow countrymen only made her stronger and more determined to win when given the opportunity.
In 1985, she once again proved that she was in control of the 100 and 200 meters when, as a junior, she defeated the senior women. Now she was given the opportunity that she so rightly deserved to compete in the African games in Cairo, Egypt, only her second major competition. Prior to this meet, Mary had trained and competed barefoot on dirt surfaces, and never had the the experience of using starting blocks. Overwhelmed by the atmosphere that surrounded her, she false started twice and was disqualified in the 100 meters. This was completely devastating to her but redemption came in the 200 meters where she placed second to a Senior competitor. In 1986, she went on to compete in the World Junior Championships in Athens, Greece and left with a silver medal in the 200 meters. From then on she was recognized as the little Nigerian girl who did not quit and was very likely to stay.
Recognition came from Mr. Jimmy Omagbemi, who was then the Athletic Director at the Ministry of Sports, Lagos, Nigeria who is now her father-in-law. He had maintained a relationship with the administration at Texas Southern University and introduced them to the young woman named Mary Onyali. Upon Mary's return from the African Championships in Cairo, Egypt in 1985, she was on her way to the United States. With assistance and extreme involvement from her coach at the time, Mr. Tobias Igwe (the fundamentalist of her career), she was ready for US collegiate track and field. This move presented feelings of fear and nervousness, but yet there was great excitement to leave Nigeria and pursue her athletic career as well as obtain a free education through fully paid all inclusive athletic scholarship and make her mother proud. Mary was on her way to Texas Southern University (1985-1990) where she went on to become NCAA champion in the 200m.
Although 1987 will be remembered as Mary's year of new beginning (her first international meet and world championships where she ran an outstanding time of 22.52 in the 200) her most prominent attitude change came in 1988 when she competed in the Olympic games in Seoul, Korea. She competed in both the 100 and 200 meters. She was elated when she made the 200 meter semi-final and found herself in the same heat as Florence Griffith-Joyner and Grace Jackson. Mary had an "I don't care" attitude, she felt great to be running in the same heat as these ladies. This race was extremely fast. Mary placed 5th with a blazing time of 22.52 and did not advance to the final but this still remains the fastest time ever to not make an Olympic final.
In 1989, it was business for Mary Onyali. She went to Europe to compete and realized that there was money to be made. Soon after graduation, Mary dedicated all of her time to track, she trained diligently and competed where ever there was competition. In 1990 Mary Won Silver at the World cup in both the 100 and 200 meters and in 1991 won an African games gold medal in the 100. She went on to become a world championships finalist in the 100 and 200 meter dashes.
Mary's dream for the 1992 Olympics was almost shortened by an immediate foot surgery procedure in December 1991. But she refused to give in to injury. By January 1992, she was back on the track training but with worries that she didn't have much time to prepare. Mary has always embraced challenge, she hates to be dared and vowed not to listen to negative advice. Well Mary strikes again, she made the Olympic team. Better yet she made the 100 meter final running 11.15 with only 5 months of training. In addition, she received a bronze medal in the 4x100 meter relay. Her disappointment came when she did not make the 200 meter final which at that point was said to be her best event.
Mary's third Olympic experience came in 1996. She had been in her best form ever and was expected to run the best race of her life, but tragedy struck again, Mary had been accused of testing positive of ephedrine five months prior to the start of the Olympic games and was placed on a 3 month suspension. Until this day, this has remained a mystery to Mary - she had no clue how it got in her system and did not knowingly administer it. This was the biggest blow of her career. She had always heard of those athletes taking performance enhancers and had promised herself that she would never knowingly take a banned substance. Her philosophy was that if it came to the point where performance enhancers were needed in order to compete at the elite level, she would just hang up the spikes. She had strived for a clean program, she came in clean and anticipated leaving the sport with a clean record. This left feelings of shame, confusion and mentally challenged her preparation for the 1996 Olympic games. She continued to train and made the Olympic team. She made the final in both the 100 and 200 meter races. Once again she was on a mission to prove those critics wrong and stop the talking that Mary Onyali was not clean. She placed most of her focus on the 100 meter race, which seemed to be her biggest disappointment. She placed 7th in the final. What happened? This is what she trained for this is what she worked so diligently for (a medal in the 100). She just wanted to give up and go home although she had qualified for the 200. The pressure seemed to be too much for Mary at this point, but she received tremendous support from her husband and coach to go out there and compete. Mary Onyali is a fighter, Mary Onyali does not give up, and she's a competitor who places extreme pressure on herself. Well all of these attributes brought her the bronze medal in the 200 meter final at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, her most prestigious award till date.
Mary took the year 1997 off to have a beautiful baby girl which has been her most rewarding decision ever, but she didn't think that it would be as challenging as it is to be mom and athlete. The biggest challenge was the emotional well-being. When she came back to the track scene in 1998, she had to deal with feelings of missing her baby and wondering if everything was all right back at home even though she has the support of a wonderful husband. Although her child was number one on her agenda she still had unfinished business to attend to on the track, there was another mission of accomplishment for Mary Onyali, but with prayer she figured out how to deal with it. Back in action in 1998 she won the bronze medal at the world cup in the 100 meters and was gold medallist at the African championships. Down again in 1999 with a nagging hamstring injury, Mary was only able to compete half way through the season, another set back at that world championship medal that she wants so badly. These minor set backs have only made this lady's drive even stronger with the initiative to keep coming back, which is what she did in the Olympic year 2000. Although not completely healthy and suffering the hamstring injury that plagued her the year before, she was still on the road to Sydney where she competed in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay which advanced to the final.
We have not seen the last of Mary Onyali. This phenomenal woman has set her sights on achieving a world championship medal, the only one missing from her showcase of medals. This is her final goal in which she will continue to compete through the year 2003. This will be the climax of Ms. Onyali's career - a glorious track and field voyage. Taking her own advice to "do what you do best, the best way you know how and strive for excellence", Mary will do just that as she has in the past, and exit with the icing on the cake of a career that she has so graciously perfected.