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Po knows: UVa shot putter also a national chess champion

  • 4 min to read

At first glance of 6-foot-3, 300-plus-pound Oghenakpobo Efekoro, the automatic reaction is this guy has to be an NFL offensive tackle. There’s so much more to Efekoro than meets the eye.

Little does anyone suspect that he’s a national chess champion, a fact that landed him appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and a spot on the Steve Harvey Show. Efekoro also was one of five subjects highlighted in the 2012 documentary “Brooklyn Castle,” detailing his and fellow inner city kids’ success on the national chess scene. He once took on actor Adrian Grenier (Entourage) in New York’s Washington Park to promote the documentary.

While all that is peachy, Efekoro made history in a different manner last Saturday when the redshirt sophomore broke the Lannigan Field record in the shot put with a throw of 20.39 meters, or 66 feet, 10.75 inches for those of us who have resisted those metrics. The toss was the nation’s best this season, and the second-best in Virginia history.

What makes that throw even better is that it came early in the season from a track and field performer who hasn’t come close to his potential.

“He is unbelievably strong, but he’s not very good technically right now,” said Bryan Fetzer, director the UVa’s track and field, and cross country programs. “That’s kind of scary. He’s missed on some big throws that could have been 21-meter throws, close to 70 feet, because he’s not quite there yet.”

Efekoro is a big man with an even bigger personality. Follow him around Virginia’s track and field practice and it’s easy to see that teammates adore him. They call him “Pobo,” short for Oghenakpobo. Some squad members just address him as “Po.”

For those who believe brains and brawn don’t mix, they don’t know Po. Not only can he work opponents on the chess board, he’s a serious student, one of the lures UVa had in its favor when he left UConn in the summer of 2015 to enhance his academics and his shot put potential. He’s now finishing up a degree in foreign affairs and will enter the Batten School this fall to pursue a master’s degree in Public Policy, the same as former Cavaliers basketball star Malcolm Brogdon.

The fact that UVa has one of the best “throw programs” in the country didn’t hurt either. Efekoro knew that he could come learn from Filip Mihaljevic, who at that point had not won the NCAA championship in the shot with a throw of 20.71 meters (67’-11.5”). Those two have formed a friendly rivalry along with the remainder of the Cavaliers’ shot and discus crowd.

Fetzer can’t help but chuckle when he thinks of the competitive camaraderie of that group of throwers. They hate losing to each other. They talk junk to each other, but at the same time, they support and pull for one another.

No sooner had Efekoro executed his massive throw last Saturday, Mihaljevic, now a senior, rushed up to start the celebration.

“That’s kind of rare in sports when your rival, who is your teammate, is your biggest supporter,” Fetzer said.

Po wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

“Filip has been my right-hand man ever since I got here,” Efekoro said. “He’s always believed in me, pushed me to be the best shot putter I can be. I’m trying to be more like him, and do the things he has for this program and rack up the accolades he has in his prestigious career here.”

In fact, Efekoro follows in Mihaljevic’s footsteps in most every way, well, except for the trash talk.

“I guess I’m the quiet guy of our group,” Efekoro laughed. “I don’t talk a lot of junk. Filip always talks junk to me. When you’re NCAA champion, you have the license to do that. It’s just another way for us to motivate each other. He talks junk, but it’s all out of love.”

Efekoro, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, knows that he has greater days ahead, and knows he could be more technically sound. Yet, he’s not attempting any major technique shifts the remainder of this season so as not to risk disturbing his rhythm, his groove that he’s in right now.

If it ain’t broke …

Instead, he has chosen to use some quick fixes that can easily be incorporated into his technique until the season is done, and then he can pursue a more sophisticated method.

His Lannigan Field-record throw came only in his second week of full training without a physical setback this spring. Even then, the throw didn’t come under ideal conditions. Smothered in academic work, he was getting five to six hours of sleep a night leading up to the meet.

Efekoro’s success came as no surprise to Virginia’s coaches. Assistant coach Martin Maric told Fetzer after the first couple of practices that Po was going to be special.

Those familiar with Efekoro’s background could have told them that.

He was a multiple national chess champion in middle school at Brooklyn’s Intermediate School 318 in the inner city, the first middle school team to win the United States Chess Federation’s national high school championship.

Efekor considers it another chapter of his life that he has been fortunate to experience. Not only has it continued to be a link between his former teammates, but he has served as an assistant coach to help continue the legacy. He and several former students at I-318 return in the summers to work as coaches and help the middle school kids.

“Now, it’s more about giving back to the next generation,” Efekoro said. “You want to help build kids self esteem. There was one kid I remember who had lost something like 25 straight matches. The next year, he was national champion. This great chess program helps kids off the streets, and that’s important in the inner city where during those after-school hours of 3 to 6, so many things can go wrong.”

His early success in middle school made him one of five members of that team that were followed on and off the chess board for a year, resulting in the hit documentary Brooklyn Castle, and TV and radio talk shows to describe the experience and the program.

“Jon Stewart was very cool,” Efekoro said. “Steve Harvey was fun. He actually made fun of my name. He had butchered the [documentary] director’s name, and I started laughing. He said, ‘What are you laughing for? Your name is longer than her’s.’”

As a promo for the film, a match was arranged between Efekoro and Grenier, whose character Vincent Chase, was the rage of the Entourage series.

“People were watching us in the park, and he’s such a big deal, they saw him and started bringing out their cameras,” Efekoro said. “I was 16. He was very cool.”

Grenier was even cool after Efekoro took him three games out of three.

It’s no wonder Efekoro’s mom, Christiana, named him so. Oghenakpobo means “life in God’s hands,” or “miracle.”

We’ll just call him Pobo, or simply Po.

Po knows shot put. Po knows chess. Po knows.

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Jerry Ratcliffe is The Daily Progress' sports reporter and columnist. Contact him at (434) 978-7250, jratcliffe@dailyprogress.com, or on Twitter @JerryRatcliffe.

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