By Jim Welp
Special to The Greenup Beacon
It’s not unusual for a Bellarmine student to spend some time abroad in the summer. But when physical therapy student Chinwe Okoro traveled overseas in June it was for an unusual reason: to compete in the Nigerian National Championships in track and field.
Okoro is a 2007 graduate of Russell High School.
The trip paid off. Ms. Okoro took the gold in discus, was the runner-up in shot put and qualified for the African Championships in Marrakech, Morocco, where she set a new African and Nigerian record for discus.
The newest trophies have plenty of company in her trophy case. The University of Louisville biology grad is a two-time Kentucky female athlete of the year and a three-time Big East athlete of the week. She holds the U of L women’s record in both shot put and discus and the Nigerian record in the discus.
But when asked about her proudest accomplishments, academics top the list. She is a five-time All-Academic honors award recipient, five-time Big East All-Academic recipient, a Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholar, a member of the Chi Alpha Sigma honor society and a recipient of the Michael Hale Scholarship in Bellarmine’s Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program.
And, as any student-athlete knows, it’s not easy balancing athletics and academics. “To be in class for approximately 40 hours per week makes practicing and competing quite a challenge,” she said. “However, school has always been my primary priority. Once I have completed this degree I can turn my focus to athletics.”
Practice typically includes weight lifting and throwing drills for shot put and discus. “Each practice can take two hours to complete, but with graduate school the time has had to decrease during the semester,” she said. “Upon the conclusion of each semester I am able to increase my practice times for that break period.”
Meanwhile, until May 2016, when Ms. Okoro will complete her DPT, academics come first. “The physical-therapy program is very rigorous,” she said. “However, I have already learned so much about physical therapy, and I have truly been enjoying the academic and clinical process. The staff has been very supportive in helping all of us succeed, and I sincerely appreciate all their help. I have also made several lifelong friends that have made the difficult road a lot more enjoyable.”
“Athletic discipline and dedication can enhance the already challenging education of a DPT student,” said Dr. Whitney Ensor, assistant professor in BU’s physical therapy program.
“Chinwe not only represents our profession extremely well but also positively impacts the clients we see in our service learning clinic,” she said. “I’ve witnessed firsthand the impact Chinwe’s work ethic and dedication to her training have on clients that were previously not cooperative with their prescribed exercise program. They know she is not only talking the talk but is also walking the walk and, as a result, they work hard for her. Chinwe has managed to not only manage her studies and training with impressive time-management but also with a humble, appreciative demeanor. She’s truly an inspiration.”
Ms. Okoro, holds dual American/Nigerian citizenship and has relished the opportunity to see the world. “I’ve competed in many states across the U.S., as well as Bydgoszcz, Poland; Porto Novo, Benin; and Lagos and Calabar, Nigeria. It has been a wonderful opportunity to experience many different nations. You learn a little bit about the culture, and an important lesson to never take anything you have for granted because there are some who are not as well off,” she said.
This past summer, her travels took her home to Eastern Kentucky. She got some valuable on-the-job clinical training at Premier Physical & Occupational Therapy.
“The clinic just happened to have an open position for a student. It was great to have the opportunity to come back,” she said. “I worked alongside a physical therapist for six weeks in order to put into practice what I have learned in the classroom. I worked the same schedule as the therapist, and I was able to interact with every patient he evaluated.”
After graduation and further athletic conquests, Okoro will decide which way to steer her physical-therapy career. “I haven’t narrowed down which PT setting I would like to work in just yet, but I like to keep my options open. I am interested in working with various groups from athletes to geriatrics patients. I have a lot of interests, particularly in traveling PT, sports and home health.”
Wherever her future lies, she is eager to express her gratitude. “I would like to thank the Bellarmine physical therapy staff, my classmates, coaches, friends, and family for being very supportive in my athletic endeavors,” she said. “Without God and all these individuals, there is no way I would be where I am today.”