Keturah Orji competes in the Women's Triple Jump during the 2020 Toyota USATF Indoor Championships on Feb. 14, 2020 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
That’s the motto University of Georgia alumna Keturah Orji lives by. The 2016 Olympian missed out on the podium in the triple jump by three centimeters and is determined to become the first American woman to ever medal in the event next summer in Tokyo.
“Knowing that I could be maybe the first (to medal), it’s honestly an honor,” Orji said. “Puts a lot of pressure on me, but I know that there are other young triple jumpers looking up to me, and I hope that they will remain in the event knowing that they can make it to that same place; triple jump American women can medal in that event.”
Looking to conquer a feat that hasn’t been done before isn’t an easy one, but Orji’s entire career has been made by shattering ceilings and expectations of female triple jumpers.
An 8-time NCAA champion, 15-time All-American, 5-time U.S. champion, 2018 NCAA Woman of the Year winner and Bowerman award winner, Orji rewrote the collegiate and American triple jump records while at Georgia and has brought attention to a track and field event that sometimes gets overlooked.
“I'm just hoping I can form that path, so that other people can follow in the same way and feel confident about that event and proud to be a triple jumper,” she said.
Orji, who had just finished her sophomore year at Georgia when she was selected to the Olympic Team, didn’t waste time making her name known when she got to Athens. She broke the American outdoor triple jump record at the NCAA championships, which she would again best during the Rio Games in 2016.
After the consecutive years of being named a finalist for the coveted Bowerman award, given to the top male and female NCAA track and field athlete year, Orji finally secured it her senior year.
“Just seeing the other men and women that are part of that group and what they’ve accomplished – Olympic medalist, world championship medalists, American records, world records; everything you can think of is all in the Bowerman group. To be chosen to be a part of that group is so amazing and being a Georgia grad and putting on for my school is always a great thing.”
Orji, who grew up a competitive gymnast and once aspired to be the next Gabby Douglas, credits her time at Georgia and competing in the NCAA with giving her the tools to find success on the world’s highest stage.
“The NCAA has some of the top athletes in the world – not just in America,” she said. “I think getting exposure to these high-level competitions, so then when you eventually go to Olympics, world
championships, Pan Americans whatever it is, you're going to see those same faces and those same people there and it prepares you.”
Even as success comes for Orji, she’s determined to fulfil her greater purpose in sport – being a positive role model to young girls and helping them realize their full potential.
While at Georgia, Orji founded a mentorship program called Amara’s Pride. The organization aims to give young girls access to successful women they can relate to, so they can envision themselves succeeding.
“Just wanting to get more exposure to them and knowing that if other women invested in them it could entirely change the trajectory in their life,” she said.
The afterschool program paired women in the community up with middle school girls in Athens, Georgia to provide exposure of positive role models in their lives. The groups did community service projects together, discussed health and wellness and different career paths the teenagers could choose.
“In her head she may not know she’s capable of being a doctor, a lawyer, a professional athlete because she's never met anyone that does those things that look like her,” Orji said of the program’s goals for the girls. “Once I realized that there wasn’t a lot of exposure going on – especially in Black communities – I felt like I wanted to have an impact on that.”
Guided by her success in triple jump and motivated by the fact that she’s in a position to make change in people’s lives, Orji aims to be that inspiration for young girls.
“Representation matters because you really don’t know what you can accomplish until you see someone that looks like you doing it,” she said. “It’s important so that people know that there are people out there that are doing these things, which means you can do them too.”