‘Marvellous’ NBA employee pursues Olympic dream
Marvellous Iheukwumere has heard them all.
Everything from “you look simply Marvellous” to “have a Marvellous day.”
“Trust me, you can’t come up with one I haven’t heard already,” said Iheukwumere, whose first name was inspired by Psalm 118:23 and is spelled using two L’s, consistent with British English.
It is not just her name that distinguishes Iheukwumere from most Olympic hopefuls. While her potential rivals have been opening eyes on the track, Iheukwumere has been opening them inside the front office of the NBA, where she has worked since 2014. She took a leave of absence—with her colleagues’ full support—to chase her dream of representing Nigeria at the Olympics in Rio, aptly nicknamed the “Marvelous City.”
“Her name describes her perfectly,” said Mark Tatum, the NBA’s Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer. “She is a marvelous person in every single way.”
Iheukwumere did not realize her first name was unique until she moved to Austin, Texas at age 9, when her parents won Green Cards through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program lottery.
Growing up in Nigeria, she knew countless people named after English adjectives. She has more than 100 first cousins; two of the youngest are Adorable and Mighty.
But on her first day of elementary school in the United States, her teacher hesitated before attempting to read her name on the role sheet. “Is Mar-vel-lous here?” the teacher asked, not even trying to pronounce Iheukwumere’s last name (E-hue-kwu-meh-reh).
“My last name is so long that people assume my first name isn’t the English word that it is,” Iheukwumere said.
It was painfully obvious which student was Iheukwumere. Most of her classmates had never met a native-born African. They asked if she swam to the United States, or if she had lived in a hut in Nigeria.
“It was a huge culture shock,” she said. “Everybody was different than me.”
Iheukwumere discovered that she could relate to her classmates on the soccer field, where she was more experienced—and faster—than American girls. Playing midfield, she dominated AYSO matches offensively and defensively.
She also developed a passion for basketball. She was transfixed by her first televised NBA game—Los Angeles Lakers vs. Miami Heat—in middle school. Watching NBA games on television became a weekly Thursday night tradition for Iheukwumere and her parents. Her mother, Oby, is a dental technologist. Her father, Chuka, was a lawyer in Nigeria, but works at a rehab center in Austin because he is not accredited to practice law in the U.S.
When she started high school at Liberal Arts and Sciences Academy in Austin, Iheukwumere focused on basketball. The track coach, LaBoris Bean, happened to be in the gym during basketball tryouts, and noticed that none of the other girls could keep up with Iheukwumere during the three-man weave passing drill. He encouraged her to run track when basketball season ended. She agreed, despite never having seen a track meet.
Tradition called for freshmen to run for the junior varsity squad. In her first meet, she received the baton in last place on the anchor leg of the 4x200m relay. Without much difficulty, she passed the seven other competitors and crossed the finish line first.
Stunned, the older students demanded that Bean move Iheukwumere up to varsity. He did not need much convincing.
Just weeks later, she was running the 4x200m as a freshman at the Texas state track and field championships.
“I really had no idea what I was doing,” she said, “but I started seeing my potential.”
Heading into her junior year, Iheukwumere became a U.S. citizen. The date was Aug. 8, 2008. Later that night, she watched the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics for the first time.
“I remember seeing the Nigerian procession,” she said. “I didn’t know how to get there, but I knew I wanted to be there.”
As a senior, she clocked 12.46 seconds to claim the 100m bronze medal at the state championships.
When it came time to pick a college, she had a difficult decision to make between Arizona State University and Columbia University.
ASU had won three women’s track and field national titles while Iheukwumere was in high school; Columbia had never even won an Ivy League title. ASU boasted world-class training facilities and sunny weather; Columbia student-athletes had to pile into vans and drive more than 45 minutes to an off-campus track, and the weather forced them inside much of the year. But ASU ranked 121st in the 2010 U.S. News and World Report academic rankings, while Columbia ranked eighth.
Iheukwumere held the National Letter of Intent from ASU in her hand on National Signing Day. But after a long conversation with her mother, she picked Columbia.
“Most collegiate student-athletes with her athletic abilities and grades would have chosen an institution with a less challenging academic schedule,” said Reuben Jones, Iheukwumere’s sprint coach at Columbia. “Marvellous saw the challenge and met it head on.”
Moving to New York for college was another culture shock for Iheukwumere.
In Austin, her mother only cooked Nigerian food, including fufu and Jollof rice. In New York, she ate macaroni and cheese for the first time.
Her first name provided plenty of fodder for the characters she encountered throughout New York City. One man asked if Marvellous was her stripper name. Another asked if she was related to former professional boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
She learned how to best introduce herself to alleviate confusion, as the greeting, “Hi, I’m Marvellous,” tended to generate a response of “Hi, I’m doing well too.” Therefore, she started saying, “Hi, my name is Marvellous.”
“Either way, my name becomes a conversation starter,” said Iheukwumere. Her friends call her Marvie, and she often wears a personalized “Marvie” necklace, a birthday present from her mother.
She quickly made a name for herself on the track. As a sophomore, she helped Columbia win its first Ivy League indoor track and field title. The "fastest woman in the Ivy League" finished her collegiate career with six individual conference titles in four events: indoor 60m and 200m, and outdoor 100m and 200m. She also broke the Ivy League 100m and 200m outdoor records, as well as Columbia’s 60m indoor record.
Iheukwumere exerted as much effort in the classroom as she did on the track. To avoid feeling overwhelmed by her academic workload during track season, she would immediately start her assignments upon receiving her syllabi. She recalls finishing a psychology paper that was due in March before Martin Luther King Day in January.
“I didn’t go to college to have fun,” said Iheukwumere, who graduated in 2014 with a GPA of 3.91. “I wanted to prove I wasn’t just there for track.”
She completed the psychology department’s two-year honors program, which is reserved for the top 3 percent of students.
“I don’t know where she got the energy or how she managed to keep it all together,” said Professor Carl Hart, Iheukwumere’s thesis adviser. “If anyone wants to know how a scholar-athlete behaves, they should seek out Marvellous.”
During her junior year, she applied for NBA’s summer internship program after learning about it from Tyler Simpson, then a basketball player at Columbia. She was offered a position in the NBA’s security department.
Iheukwumere found herself standing next to the Larry O'Brien Trophy in the bowels of American Airlines Arena in Miami during Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. With the San Antonio Spurs leading by five points with 28 seconds remaining in the elimination game, she began to help move the trophy towards the court for the Spurs’ championship celebration. But in the closing seconds of regulation, Ray Allen hit a 3-pointer to force overtime and spark a comeback win for the Heat, the team she had watched play in her first televised NBA game.
“I decided then that I wanted to work full-time for the NBA,” said Iheukwumere, who was previously considering a psychology graduate program.
With graduation approaching, Iheukwumere applied for only one job: the NBA Associate Program. Her back-up plan was to run professionally. She ended up being one of eight recent college graduates selected for the 2014-2015 NBA Associate Program out of a pool of more than 2,500 applicants.
Of the four NBA departments that she rotated through, player development, which helps players with off-the-court matters, was her favorite.
“I really got to understand the players for who they are,” she said.
Greg Taylor, the NBA’s Senior Vice President of Player Development, noticed Iheukwumere’s work ethic. He assigned her a project that he expected would take her two days, but she completed it thoroughly in just a few hours.
“It’s safe to say that she is fast at all things,” Taylor said.
During the 2015 NBA All-Star Weekend, LeBron James arrived late to practice and needed somebody to quickly escort him to the locker room in Madison Square Garden. Naturally, Iheukwumere’s colleagues picked her.
“I had to conceal every fangirl emotion,” she said.
In July, Iheukwumere attended the Beyond Sport United summit at the Prudential Center in New Jersey. She sat in the audience for a panel, “How to support and engage athletes post-career in social responsibility efforts,” led by Hannah Burns, Head of Games Development at the International Olympic Committee, and seven-time Olympic swimming medalist Kirsty Coventry.
Listening to Burns and Coventry rekindled Iheukwumere’s Olympic dream. She had never abandoned her training; she would wake at 4 a.m. to lift weights before work, and end her days with track sessions.
“Not many people knew about Marvellous' rigorous schedule,” said Mary O’Laughlin, a colleague at the NBA who was also hired through the Associate Program. “She never seemed tired.”
A month later, Iheukwumere’s year in the NBA Associate Program came to an end. She had an opportunity to remain at the NBA in the player development department, but decided to take a sabbatical to return to training full-time through the 2016 Olympics.
She moved to Phoenix and ALTIS, an elite training center and home of several Olympic champions, including hurdler Aries Merritt and long jumper Greg Rutherford. Iheukwumere calls the facility, which features two theatres and an executive chef, “an athlete’s heaven.”
The ALTIS coaching staff completely reworked Iheukwumere’s mechanics. She admits she had “terrible form” in college, running on her heels instead of the balls of her feet. To improve, the 5-foot-5 Iheukwumere watched footage of 2012 Olympic 100m silver medalist Carmelita Jeter, who is similar in build.
“At first I thought she would give up,” said Dominique' Booker, a former University of Kentucky sprinter who is now Iheukwumere’s training partner at ALTIS. “It wasn’t that she was bad, but her mechanics were just off, and you could tell that she had not run in some time.”
After a nearly two-year break from competition, Iheukwumere is still striving to match her top times from college. Her personal best in the 100m is 11.63 seconds, and 23.54 seconds in the 200m. In 2016, she said her season’s best is 11.73 seconds in the 100m and 23.60 seconds in the 200m.
To qualify to go to Rio, Iheukwumere needs to meet the Olympic standard in either the 100m (11.32 seconds) or 200m (23.20 seconds) by July 11. Two Nigerian women have already met the Olympic standard in each event, according to tilastopaja.org.
She also needs to finish in the top three at Nigeria’s Olympic Trials, July 7-9. She finished fifth in the 200m at 2014 Nigerian Nationals.
“Marvie definitely has the talent to hit the Olympic standards in her events,” said Chidi Enyia, her sprint coach at ALTIS. “At the moment, she appears to be closer in the 200m.”
Even if Iheukwumere does not meet the Olympic standard, she could be considered for Nigeria’s 4x100m relay team if she finishes in the top six in the 100m at Trials and records fast times over the next month.
“I have a good chance,” she said, “as long as I execute a great race at Trials.”
Iheukwumere, 24, plans on returning to work at the NBA sometime after the Olympics. She believes her experience as a professional runner will give her more credibility with the NBA players.
“Before I would draw from my psychology background,” she said. “Now I can talk to them as a fellow professional athlete.”
Tatum would welcome Iheukwumere’s return to the NBA. He said that if she qualifies for the Olympics, he will be in the stands to support her.
“The entire NBA office is rooting for her,” Tatum said.
Iheukwumere has a long-term goal that can only be described as, well, Marvellous. She plans to return to Nigeria, where she would use her platform as a professional athlete to inspire children.
“Hopefully I can show them that it is possible to be great at academics,” she said, “as well as athletics.”