U foursome is deep in speed and sacrifice

The Gophers women's 400-meter relay team has forged a unique bond on the track, overcoming physical and personal hardships.

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From left: Gophers runners Kylie Peterson, Chimerem Okoroji, Nyoka Giles and Todea-Kay Willis are trying to build on last year’s success in the 400 relay.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Members of the Gophers women's 4x100-meter relay team, like many of the 750 athletes at the University of Minnesota, have spent most of their college careers in relative anonymity.

Their impressive accomplishments -- such as qualifying for the NCAA meet in that event for the first time in school history last spring, with a chance to do it again this year -- often go unnoticed.

Going into the Big Ten meet starting Friday in Madison, where the Gophers men's team also will compete, the women's 4x100 relay team is one of the favorites. Each of the four women, who started at the 'U' together in the fall of 2008, has made a long journey -- in miles and/or personal growth -- to reach this point. And each of them has an interesting story to tell.

The mom

Kylie Peterson's track career took a detour when she became pregnant. She had a baby boy, Jaylen, in August and is raising him as a single mom with her parents' help.

Peterson's return to the track -- after a one-year layoff with her pregnancy -- was harder than anything she had done before, she said. It was not so much losing the 20 pounds she gained, but getting into competition shape again.

"The challenge has been balancing everything," Peterson said. "But in the end I wanted to see where I could go with track. It always has been a passion, it has always been a love. I wanted to be there for my teammates and see how far we can go."

Two years ago, the 400- meter relay team, with three of the four current runners, dropped a baton in the NCAA preliminaries and was disqualified. Last year, the relay made the national meet without her. This spring, with Peterson on the anchor leg, the relay team has the third-best time in the Big Ten and is 0.25 seconds off the school record of 44.70.

Jaylen will be at his first outdoor meet this weekend. It might be the first of many, since he is already showing signs of the speed that could make him a sprinter someday.

"He is a fast crawler, so maybe," Peterson said.

The caregiver

Chimerem Okoroji put track and school on the backburner the fall of her sophomore year after her mother, Priscilla, found out she had colon cancer.

"I decided to take that semester off while she underwent surgeries and chemo and stuff like that," said Okoroji, who moved home to Eau Claire, Wis. "She went into remission for a while, then it came back in her liver. But she is doing pretty well right now."

So is Okoroji, who said her coach, Matt Bingle, and teammates supported her through her family crisis and afterward.

"I knew I could take a semester off," she said, "and still come back and fit really well with the team and still be able to contribute."

Every other year, her father returns to Nigeria to visit relatives. She was born there, too, but was 6 when her family won a visa lottery to emigrate to the U.S. The Okorojis settled in Eau Claire because that is where their sponsor resided.

There she met a high school track coach, Mark Johnson, who persuaded a reluctant freshman to keep running another year.

"I am definitely glad I stuck with it, and it has brought me here," said Okoroji, who runs the third leg of the relay.

The voice

People often ask Nyoka Giles to talk just so they can hear her voice.

"They just ask me silly questions," Giles said. "They might ask, 'Did you eat?' Yes I ate. 'What did you eat?' Just stupid questions like that just to hear my accent."

Giles is from Trinidad. She speaks in a sophisticated, British vernacular and chose Minnesota sight unseen, trusting Bingle.

"Coach Bingle came to Trinidad and recruited me," she said. "He just watched me in practice one day and [his visit] was enough to convince me to come."

As a sophomore, she missed several months during the outdoor season because of a stress fracture in her spine.

"It was hard emotionally and physically on my body," said Giles, who graduated last Saturday and plans to attend graduate school at Florida International.

The long jumper

As a youngster, Todea-Kay Willis learned to jump and run from Leecroft Bolt, one of Jamaica's best track and field coaches. He coached her high school team and has worked with national junior teams.

"[Track] is ingrained in our culture," Willis said. "You are running from little organized competitions in elementary school. Even in your play time, you might be doing races just to see who is fastest."

Usually, it was Willis.

She, too, came to Minnesota without a visit. Bingle had warned her about the winter cold. She was still shocked: "My first year was pretty rough. My first snowfall, breathing through a scarf -- oh, my gosh."

Willis has used her speed primarily in two events, running the first leg of the 4x100 relay and on the runway on the long jump. She hopes to win her second conference title in the long jump in three years. She is also confident in the relay team.

"We jell very well," she said.

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