July 6, 2017

Pobo Efekoro Enters Batten A Winner in Chess, Athletics and Leadership

Oghenakpobo Efekoro discovered leadership early through competition, advocacy, and achievement.

His middle school chess team won national championships. In high school Efekoro — known as Pobo to his friends — became one of the top track and field athletes in New York state while he served as an assistant chess coach. He petitioned the U.S Congress as a 15-year-old student to support chess in the public schools, and a nationally acclaimed documentary brought the cause to a wide audience.

Now at the University of Virginia, Efekoro has finished third nationally in shot put. He’ll be applying his decade-long commitment to hard work and team achievement as an incoming Batten master’s degree student.

Efekoro began competitive chess at age nine. He and his teammates earned five national chess championships before he graduated from middle school, Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Chess has taught me to develop the will to work, to find a way to get work done with less amount of time, and it has to be good quality,” Efekoro said.

As a high school freshman, Efekoro served as an assistant coach for his middle school team, which won a national chess championship at the high school level, the first time any middle school team had done that. No other school has won as many championships.

Efekoro switched to competitive athletics, first basketball, and then track and field. He developed quickly in the shot put and discus, and in his sophomore year he represented Forest Hills High School in Queens at the New York state championships. He finished fourth in the shot put. And while Efekoro kept a hand in weekend chess coaching, he now focused more on academics and varsity competition.

And politics. When Barack Obama was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president, Efekoro was in the thick of the campaign the summer before his junior year of high school.

As a Fall Fellow with the Obama for America campaign, “I spent a lot of the summer working in Obama’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan, making phone calls to voters, entering data, canvassing, and organizing different meetings and gatherings for supporters.” In the fall, he switched to the field office in East Brooklyn. His work including organizing bus trips to send supporters to Philadelphia, a trip he made himself.

He was in the thick of a momentous campaign. “After school’s over (for the day), I’d go from Queens to Brooklyn and I spend most of my evening working in the field office. Weekends were insane; on Saturday I’d spend 12 hours in the office.

“It was really fun, and I learned a lot about the intricacies of grass-roots campaigning, what it’s like to actually be on the ground, communicating with voters. It was a really, really fun experience, and it’s something that I won’t forget. I’ll have that forever. It was such an awesome experience.”

Then, a month before the vote, Efekoro found himself in the celebrity eye from his days as a championship chess player. An award-winning documentary, Brooklyn Castle, told his story and that of four teammates. On election day, he was on the Steve Harvey Show in Chicago, being interviewed about the documentary with another teammate and the director. Efekoro flew back to New York that evening as the votes were being counted, unsure of the results. But when the plane flew into New York airspace, Efekoro saw the lights of the Empire State Building lit up blue, and he knew he that candidate Obama had become president-elect.

Later that week Efekoro was on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, with the documentary director and producer Katie Dellamaggiore. He had been interviewed a few weeks earlier by Natalie Morales on The Today Show

His senior year proved equally intense. Efekoro served in school leadership as Forest Hill’s student government vice president and on the political debate team. But it was also college decision time, and for a young man with many choices, he had much to consider. Should he follow through on the serious recruiting effort made by Cornell University, or pursue the likelihood of the U.S. Naval Academy? (His one sibling, an brother, Ovie Inuwere, served the Navy and is now with a naval contractor in the Tidewater area.)

In the end, Efekoro chose the University of Connecticut, a decision that merited a story in The New York Post.

But Efekoro realized he needed a stronger competitive environment to reach his potential. A teammate at UConn suggested transferring to UVA, which had two shot putters on track to become Olympians: interim throws coach Kemal Mesic and student-athlete Filip Mihaljevic, an expected December 2017 graduate, who would become the 2016 ACC Outdoor Men’s Field Performer of the Year. Both competed in the 2016 Olympics. (In addition, Mihaljevic finished first in the shot put and discus last month at the 2017 NCAA Championships. He also was named the 2017 ACC Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Scholar Athlete of the Year.)

(Photo from VirginiaSports.com)

Another influential teammate has been 2017 graduate Jordan Young, the 2015 and 2017 ACC Champion in the weight throw. And two-time Olympian discus thrower Martin Maric has returned to the UVA staff, and he coaches Efekoro in the shot put.

“Both coaches (Mesic and Maric) have been helpful and instrumental in getting me to where I am today,” Efekoro said. “And my teammates are the best you could ever have. They’re like brothers to me, Filip especially.”

He keeps connections to his hometown. His mother, Christiana Inuwere, still lives in Brooklyn. (He lost his father, Patrick Efekoro, when Efekoro was four years old. Both of his parents were born in Nigeria.)

Efekoro’s recent past points to a likely tremendous future. He finished third nationally in the shot put in 2017 NCAA Indoor Championships, earning first-team All-America honors, and fourth nationally in outdoor competition last month. (A list of most of his achievements is at VirginiaSports.com.)

Last year he competed for Nigeria in African Championships in Athletics of the Confederation of African Athletics (CAA), finishing fourth in the shot put. (He holds dual citizenship in both the U.S. and Nigeria.) He may get to represent Nigeria in the London in August at the IAAF World Championships, but no decision has been made yet.

He has two years of eligibility left at UVA, as he completes his bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs next year and his master’s of public policy degree in 2019.

This summer, Efekoro is practicing 20 hours a week and taking two courses: “Iranian Politics, 1953 – Present” and “Speech and Diplomacy in World Politics.” In the fall, he’ll have “a lot of time to study and work on my projects and papers that I have to write. I feel very confident about the fall. I won’t start competing until January. But the fall semester is when I get beaten up in the weight room, when I feel the most tired,” Efekoro said.

While he has competed in discus and the weight throw, “I’m mainly a shot putter. That’s the event that I’m going to be a professional at when I graduate from UVA, if, God willing, I’m able to do that, to be a professional thrower.”

The rigorous balancing of academics and athletics has led to comparisons with a recent Batten graduate who just won the 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year award.

Efekoro laughs knowingly. “I get that a lot,” he said, smiling.

But he takes the comparison seriously. “Malcolm Brogdon is another athlete who did everything the right way. I think professors worry about student athletes and how they’re able to balance their time. My motivation is, if Malcolm Brogdon can do it, I can certainly do it, because he certainly does a lot more traveling than I do. His practice is a lot more rigid than mine.

“There are a lot of people who’ve told me, ‘You’re kind of like following in Malcolm Brogdon’s footsteps.’ It’s a huge honor.”