From clinically obese to the Olympics: Lawrence Okolie's unlikely journey

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

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RIO DE JANEIRO – Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards was a skier, and a good one, in the 1980s, who harbored Olympic dreams. He narrowly missed qualifying for a spot on the Great Britain team that would compete in the 1984 Games in Sarajevo.

He moved to Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1985 with the intention of improving his odds of making the 1988 team in Calgary. But it cost much more than he expected and he shortly abandoned the U.S.

He didn’t, though, abandon his dream. He so badly wanted to compete in the Olympics that he hatched a dream to compete in ski jumping, given the fact that Great Britain had no one in that event. The last time the Brits had a ski jumper was in 1929.

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Edwards finished last in both his events in 1988 in Calgary, but he became a mythical figure, so much so that earlier this year, 20th Century Fox released “Eddie the Eagle,” a movie on his life.

But Edwards may no longer be Great Britain’s most unlikely Olympian.

Given the state of his health, heavyweight boxer Lawrence Okolie may be the most unlikely Olympian ever. He took up the sport not because he harbored dreams of a gold medal or a world title, but rather, to save him from himself.

He was a fast food junkie who began to box in 2010 because at 265 pounds, he was clinically obese and looking for a way to help himself lose weight and improve his health.

Lawrence Okolie will compete for Great Britain in the heavyweight division. (Getty)
Lawrence Okolie will compete for Great Britain in the heavyweight division. (Getty)

The 2012 Olympic Games were in London, but Okolie never gave them a second thought.

He wasn’t a competitive boxer then. He was just an average man on the street, looking for a way to pay for his education and shed some unwanted pounds.

He worked at McDonald’s and was planning to go to school.

“I was 19 and just trying to make some money to get by before I went to university,” Okolie said.

In 2014, he switched gyms and joined the Great Britain national team last year. The coaches running the program were amazed by what they saw. In two months, they moved him to what they call their podium squad, which are the elite boxers most likely to have a chance to do well in the Olympics.

Okolie went to Turkey this year in an Olympic qualifier unheralded and virtually unknown. He left the event as the champion and was headed to Rio as a man to watch.

During the qualifier, he beat the third-, eighth- and 10th-ranked opponents to win the event and earn his spot. He never imagined any of this when he took his doctor’s advice seriously.

He’s no longer the pudgy kid he was then who enjoyed snacks more than hitting the bag. He’s a fit, competitive Olympian.

“If I’d known that I’d simply make it onto the podium tier, I’d have been surprised,” he said. “But to have boxed in tournaments across the world in the last year and qualified for the Olympics, it’s surreal.”

He’ll meet Poland’s Igor Pawel Jakubowski on Saturday in his Olympic opener.

It’s a win for him to be here, but he believes he has the ability to compete for a medal. He’s no doubt destiny’s darling.

“Obviously, everyone has their stories and their backgrounds, but I feel that the way that everything has played out and [how I have] gotten to this stage, it seems something special is meant to happen here,” he said.

 

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