The Olympian-turned-NFL newbie on learning a new sport, sprint speeds and exporting grime to the US
It’s hard to think of a more mercurial current British sportsman than Lawrence Okoye. He once scored a try at Twickenham and a career in rugby seemed inevitable. But the 21-year-old instead turned to the discus and last summer reached the Olympic final just two years after taking up the sport full-time. In his third and biggest sporting career, Okoye recently signed a free agent deal with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL, and has just completed a rookie training camp with the team. He must now fight tooth and nail to prove he is good enough to make the final roster in August.
How easy is it to make the transition from athletics to American football?
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I’m under no illusions. But other guys have made the transition before. One of my key decisions in joining the 49ers was the chance to work with defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. He has a great history in NFL Europe, where he started in England with the Monarchs. He’s known for developing people without much of a background in the game, and even those who have never played the sport. I fall into that category.
How does training differ between discus and the NFL?
The two things are worlds apart. But there is crossover in terms of the work I do in the weights room where – for the past couple of years in particular – the objective has been to build size, strength and, most importantly, explosive power. Right now, my training time is spent between specific position drills, conditioning and weight training. It’s different each day, but the circuit stuff designed to improve my anaerobic fitness is the real killer.
A lot has been made about your pace over 100m when you were younger. What’s your speed like over short distances?
I’m not entirely sure. I’m just over 22 stone at the moment, so it would be tough to match my 100m personal best of 10.95 seconds. However, I’m far more explosive now, so I’m covering short distances very quickly. For example, I have run a 1.64-second 10-yard dash, which is much more important both for discus and NFL.
How do you get your brain in gear for the steep learning curve of the NFL?
It’s going to be tough to learn everything from the defensive playbook to the positional responsibilities of our defensive scheme from scratch. But I look forward to it. I’ve always liked my studies, and we had to sit a sort of IQ test before the draft. I think I did OK in that; I’d be interested to see my score.
Do you have to be careful what you eat?
I usually eat five meals a day, but they’re smallish and spread around my training time. All I do now is sleep, eat and train. At the moment, I can mostly eat what I want. It’s likely the 49ers will want my weight to stay the same, so my diet won’t change.
Who’s the fittest athlete you’ve trained around?
Without question, Mo Farah. The guy’s just ridiculous.
What music do you usually listen to in the gym?
I’ve always been used to training in London, so typically I listen to music from home. That was fine in in the UK, but I get some interesting looks in the US when I start playing south London grime. I don’t know if the other NFL prospects I’ve been training with like it – I don’t dare ask!
Lawrence’s killer tip
The more you train, the quicker you improve. It’s a simple point but often overlooked. The idea that you should never lift more than four times a week is nonsense to me.