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Published: Monday, 4/14/2003

Planners find winner in more ways than one

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Chukwu: He's found his calling. Chukwu: He's found his calling.
SIMMONS / BLADE Enlarge

Clement Chukwu began running during his senior year in high school in his native Nigeria, which is late by Olympic standards, but he still became a silver medalist in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Now, Mr. Chukwu said he uses the same principles of hard work and teamwork that helped his team win the silver for the 4x400 relay in his job as a planning technician with the Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commission.

Mr. Chukwu, 29, grew up in Nigeria in a family of five boys and three girls. As a boy, he was an avid soccer player and hadn't considered running track until a friend challenged him to a 200-meter race.

“I beat him, of course,” Mr. Chukwu said with a smile in his strong Nigerian accent. “After that, my coach told me I could go to America and go to school for free if I wanted to work really hard.”

Mr. Chukwu proved himself and was awarded a full college scholarship. “I wanted to go someplace warm like Arizona, but it didn't happen like that,” Mr. Chukwu said.

Instead of a familiar warm climate, Mr. Chukwu wound up at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.

His college track career was highlighted by several first-place championships. Mr. Chukwu can recall each race and the results with lightning speed.

In 1997, he won the World Student Games in Sicily with a time of 44.98 seconds in the 400-meter run. A year later, he won the same race at the NCAA Championship in 44.71 seconds. In 1998, he won the 400-meter run during the African Championship held in Senegal. His time was 44.65 seconds.

Running 400 meters - about a quarter-mile - in 44 seconds translates roughly into the same speed a car moves when traveling 20 mph.

After college, Mr. Chukwu made the 2000 Nigerian Olympic 4x400 relay team. It finished second behind the U.S. team.

“Sydney was just amazing. The whole experience - just amazing,” he said.

He was joined in Sydney by his girlfriend, Colleen Saunders, a Cincinnati native who ran track for the University of Toledo. The couple met during a college competition. It was she who brought Mr. Chukwu to Toledo.

While at Eastern Michigan, Mr. Chukwu majored in urban planning. “I'm really glad I got this job at the Planning Commission because this is what I went to school for, and what I want to do,” he said.

Stephen Herwat, director of the Plan Commission, said Mr. Chukwu's Olympic achievement was extremely impressive.

“It was funny. During the course of the interview, we noticed there was a period of time not accounted for on his resume,” Mr. Herwat said. “He said, `Oh, I was training for the Olympics.'

“We had to be impressed with his work ethic. Anyone willing to put in that kind of work to achieve a silver medal in the Olympics is dedicated to achieve any task,” Mr. Herwat said.

During the day, Mr. Chukwu assists urban planners with case files, map-making, and zoning codes. He said he enjoys dealing with the public on planning matters that relate to the townships and unincorporated areas of Lucas County.

He plans to become an urban planner. “Planning is about making life comfortable for people,” he said. “I look at Nigeria and the way it is planned. It's not very good, and that really motivates me here.”



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