Checkmate: Bed-Stuy native uses chess skills to spark track & field stadom

The thinker: Bedford-Stuyvesant native Oghenakpobo Efekoro is always thinking of his next move, whether he’s throwing shotput or staring down a chess board.
University of Virginia Athletics

It was his best move yet.

Bedford-Stuyvesant native Oghenakpobo Efekoro began his college career at the University of Connecticut, but he knew it wasn’t the right place for him after just one season with the Huskies’ track and field team.

Efekoro — a former competitive chess champion — transferred to the University of Virginia in 2015, a decision he says was nothing short of perfect.

“I decided that it was best for me to transfer to [Virginia] to pursue a better athletic career and a better academic career,” Efekoro said.

His road to Virginia began during a gym class at Forest Hills High School. The then-sophomore was playing football with his friends when the school’s track and field coach, William Lopez, spotted him and remarked on his footwork. Just a few months later, Efekoro was a track and field star.

“I qualified for the city championship in both the shot and the discus,” Efekoro said. “I’d never done anything like that before.”

But his initial success didn’t totally convince Efekoro — never a prototypical athlete — to return to the track the following season. He’d won five chess titles in middle school, and was certain that competing in the shot put was nothing more than a slight athletic distraction. That, however, was before Lopez asked him why he hadn’t come out for practice.

“I was walking out of the bathroom one day at school and he was like, ‘Hey, when are you going to come out for the team?’ ” Efekoro said. “I’d been trying to avoid him, but I came back out for indoors.”

Efekoro qualified for the state championship in indoor and outdoor competition that season, and the colleges came calling. He committed to UConn in 2014, but didn’t hit his stride until he transferred to Virginia, where he earned all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors in shot put last year and was named a second-team all-American.

Efekoro said, however, that success in shot put competition isn’t simply a matter of how far you can throw. It’s about that footwork — the same that caught Lopez’s eye — and a fine-tuned approach on every attempt. In that regard, he said, it’s a lot like chess.

“It’s very much a finesse thing,” Efekoro said. “I see a lot of big guys come in and just not do well because they don’t have the training or the coordination or the footwork. I kind of see life as a chess game. The decisions you make can have grave consequences or they can be really, really good.”

Efekoro’s next challenge — one he’s determined to master — is throwing the shot put internationally.

“My goal for this year is to meet the standard for the world championships,” he said. “I’d compete for my parents’ home country of Nigeria. That’s my next move.”

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