Photo: NCAA champion Obinna Nwanna with coach Steve Rubin
Obinna Nwanna was so focused on academics when he chose to attend Case Western Reserve University that he did not even reach out to then track and field head coach Steve Rubin until his third week on campus.
In fact, it was not even his idea to become a decathlete. "Matt Kamalsky (his friend and training partner) came to my office, introduced himself, and told me he thought Obi should train for the decathlon," said Steve Rubin, who served as the CWRU head men's and women's track and field coach from 2007-12. "I met Obi and told him Matt thought he could excel as a decathlete because he was strong in so many of the 10 events and he said O.K."
“Obinna and I had dinner together really late in his freshman year and we decided to train really heavily that summer,” Kamalsky recalled. “We trained so hard that summer, though not very wisely. When Coach Rubin told me he thought I would be good for the decathlon, I told him about how I had been training with Obi all summer and what I thought he was capable of.”
The two have remained close with Nwanna being a part of Kamalsky’s wedding on July 21, 2017. “Obi is a spectacular person,” Kamalsky remarked.
Photo: Obinna Nwanna with Matt Kamalsky on Kamalsky's wedding day
Nwanna had competed in track and field in his junior and senior years of high school, but was really only interested in the high jump at that time, qualifying for regionals both years, and capturing the conference title as a senior.
By the time he graduated in 2010, Nwanna was a three-time UAA champion in the high jump, a four-time All-American, and had capped off his career with the NCAA decathlon title at the 2010 NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
"He presented differently physically," said Dave Diles, current Athletic Director at Virginia Military Institute who served as the CWRU Director of Athletics from 2005-13. "Having been in Division I before and since, he presented as a high-level Division I athlete."
"I started training for the multis during my sophomore year in college," Nwanna said. "In the previous year, I had already begun learning some of the other jumping events because training solely for the high jump was putting a lot of stress on my body."
"His physical gifts were remarkable but his dedication was so impressive," Diles recalled. "He would be in the gym with Steve by himself or with one other athlete. "He accepted coaching so well. He was analytical about the information he was receiving and had a desire to harness his physical gifts."
“From a physical perspective, there was no one in Case track and field history like him,” Kamalsky stated. “He went from a moderately successful high school athlete to a next-level decathlete in such a short time.”
"One of the reasons he made such a great decathlete is that mentally he was very even-keeled. Nothing seemed to bother him on any level," added Rubin, who was recently hired as the head men's and women's track and field coach at Amherst College after five years as an assistant coach at NCAA Division I University of North Carolina.
"Whether he had a great performance or a poor performance in an event, he put that behind him and moved on to the next event. That is so important for a decathlete."
Nwanna did not enjoy the multiple events equally, though he trained hard in all. "My least favorite event was the 1,500 meters without a doubt," he stated. "Although it did motivate me to score as many points in all the other events to make that one as little of a liability as possible." On the flip side, in spite of being a veteran of the high jump, his favorite event was the hurdles because, as he referred to it, "it is a highly technical, yet elegant discipline."
"He was a real student of what he did. Being a decathlete was almost all brand new to him," Rubin commented. "He really enjoyed the process of having to learn the events and the technical aspects of each of them. He never got discouraged by new things like the pole vault. He had no idea what he was doing at first, but it didn’t bother him — he enjoyed learning how to get better."
He won the high jump title as a sophomore at the 2008 UAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships and also earned a trip to the NCAA championships for the first time. "It was very unusual to go from the team-focused atmosphere of a UAA meet to just me and Esther (Erb), the only other (CWRU) qualifier," Nwanna remarked. "Also, such a large meet is structured differently. It is contested over the course of several days so I had nothing to do but sit and think about the upcoming event."
That same year, Kamalsky remembered competing at the Last Chance Meet at North Central College. “It was one of our first decathlons and Obi set a huge personal record in the pole vault, but he went over the bar head first,” he said. “It was incredible to see this huge guy do what he did.”
"Unfortunately, I didn't know Obi all that well due to our basically opposite events. I did one thing over and over and over and over, while he specialized in an event where he did 10 completely different things," Erb laughed. "Ever since he was a freshman, Obi had a strong, calm, and quiet presence. He'd crack a smile every once in a while, but in general he was very serious and his passion for the sport was clear."
That same year, he earned UAA All-Academic recognition in the winter (indoor) and spring (outdoor) seasons. In fact, he qualified for the Association's academic honor all six times he was eligible (first-year competitors are not eligible) and was named to the elite Presidents Scholar-Athlete Team in 2009-10.
"Intellectually, he was superior," Diles said. "It was clear he would be equally, if not more accomplished, academically than athletically." Diles remembers his demeanor mirroring his athletic and academic excellence. "He was gentle and engaging. There was just an appropriateness in how he handled himself in conversation. He didn’t just hear. He listened."
"He was a fantastic student," Rubin remembered. "He was a part of two biomedical research teams as an undergraduate at the same time. It is not unusual for Case and UAA students to have those kind of rigorous schedules, but being so new to being a decathlete took a lot more of his time than a lot of student-athletes."
Nwanna took another step forward athletically in 2009 when he finished fourth in the pentathlon at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships for his first All-America honor. He repeated as UAA high jump champion at the Association outdoor meet and placed eighth in the decathlon at the NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
Senior year marked another first for Nwanna as he won the UAA high jump title again, but this time at the indoor championship. He finished fifth in the pentathlon at the 2010 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships before his big breakthrough at the outdoor meet, the final competition of his collegiate career.
On the opening day of the decathlon, Nwanna finished first in the shot put and fourth in the 100-meter dash to end the first five events in third place. He shone on the second day, placing third in the 110-meter hurdles, second in the discus, fifth in the pole vault, and fourth in the javelin en route to first place. That left only his dreaded 1,500-meter run between him and the NCAA title.
"He had a poor day in the discus by his standards, even though he seemed really ready to throw well. Looking back, I learned a lot that day and I thought he was in trouble," Rubin stated. "I was not as composed as he was entering the 1,500. He scratched and clawed the whole way back with the pole vault and javelin. I don't think Obi had ever broken 5:10 before. He just wasn't strong in the event even though he worked hard. Then he bettered his personal record in the race by 10 seconds. It was the hardest thing he ever did, but he had to give it everything he had."
Rubin also remembers that the decathlon was so close that it took 20-25 minutes before they knew Nwanna had won the title.
"Besides simply having more practice hours under my belt, I think the key difference was familiarity," Nwanna commented. "By this point, I had competed with most of the guys in some fashion. I had a good idea what everyone would be capable of on their best day or an off day. So while the leaderboard may appear to be volatile, I could remain confident in my meet strategy."
Nwanna was featured in the June 14, 2010 "Faces in the Crowd" section of Sports Illustrated with the following paragraph:
MAUMEE, OHIO > TRACK AND FIELD
Nwanna, a senior at Case Western Reserve, won the decathlon at the NCAA Division III championships (7,056 points) with seven personal-best finishes over the two-day event. The school's first track and field national titlist in 20 years, Nwanna is a two-time All-America in both the decathlon and the indoor pentathlon.
"Obi said in an interview after his NCAA DIII win in 2010 that it was the highlight of his career," Erb recalled. "My 10K title race still shines as one of the brightest moments in my career as well. I'd love to think that his presence at my win in 2008 may have given him the confidence to know that he could do the same in 2010."
Even more so than the success Nwanna enjoyed at the national meets, Diles remembers the way he handled himself. "At the NCAA’s, he engaged so well with his peers and competitors," Diles remembered. "It was always about doing his best. He handled his competition wonderfully."
"He was a fun young man to be around," Diles concluded. "He was respectful and there was a dignity about him in competition."
"Without question, he is one of my favorite student-athletes of all time," Rubin remarked. I had the best working relationship with Obi that I have ever had with any athlete. He is super quiet, but when you get to know him, he is one of the funniest people I have met. We had so much fun at practice. He has a very dry sense of humor and will say funny things with a completely straight face."
Nwanna helped Erb a couple of years later, even if he didn't know it. "In March of 2012, I was on my way back from the Gate River Run and Obi and Steve were at the same gate in the same airport waiting for their connection on their way home from indoor nationals," Erb recalled. "At that point, Obi had become an assistant coach, and it was exciting to see him in a leadership role and still involved in the sport. I was very happy to see both of them, and during a time that was relatively difficult in my running career, it was nice to be reminded of a place and time when I had seen great success."
Nwanna has continued to pursue academics, which has remained his priority since he chose to attend CWRU. He completed his Master of Science in biomedical engineering at Cleveland State University in 2014 with his thesis "Validation of an Accelerometry Based Method of Human Gait Analysis."
He is now working on his PhD in biomedical engineering at Northwestern University.
"In 26 years of coaching, I could count on one hand the number of athletes I have coached who had anything close to his composure and drive," Rubin remarked. "Some peope have the drive, but they don't know what to do with it. He knew how to harness that drive. He was a coach's dream."
“He may be an even more interesting person than he is an athlete,” Kamalsky added. “I spent every day with him for three years and those were some of the most fun times I have had in my life, being with him and Coach Rubin. Obi is the most humble person I have ever met and one of the funniest people with a very self-deprecating sense of humor.