Speed Queens

Peoria teen sisters are racing toward success on the track and off

The world's fastest 17-year-old girl summons her teammates to the finish line of Peoria High School's oval track.

It's the end of a grueling two-hour practice at Peoria High School, on a blustery day in late February.

Jessica Onyepunuka, her defending state champion team's undisputed leader, has worked hard all afternoon, trying to ignore the chilly weather and her aching body.

Judith and Jessica Onyepunuka
Jackie Mercandetti
Judith and Jessica Onyepunuka
Judith Onyepunuka (top left) and her older sister Jessica (bottom left) have been dominating the Arizona track world for years.
Jackie Mercandetti
Judith Onyepunuka (top left) and her older sister Jessica (bottom left) have been dominating the Arizona track world for years.

"Time for me to do a little preaching 'cause it's Friday!" Jessica says, as 15 or so of her teammates -- the sprinters -- encircle her. "Yes, it's Friiiiiidayyyy! Be thankful. We made it! We practiced on Monday. We practiced on Tuesday. We practiced on Wednesday. And, oh yes, we cramped up on Thursday, my dear Lord."

With that, Jessica points at her 16-year-old sister, Judith, a sophomore and the second-fastest girl sprinter in Arizona, who's nursing a tweaked hamstring. Judith knows better than to interrupt this gospel-inspired roll (no matter that the Onyepunukas are Catholic).

"Yes, we made it to Friday, and here we are, Lord," Jessica continues, her voice rising. "Hallelujah! Now, we're going to get our groove on, okay, have ourselves a weekend, then get back to work on Monday. Got to do it right, Lord. Okay, can I get a P-town one time?"

Keegan Herring, who is the fastest boy in the state (and a football star, too), shimmies up and down, arms flapping, as if he's suddenly been possessed by the great God of Speed.

He and the other sprinters respond with a loud P-town -- short, of course, for Peoria.

"One more time, let me hear it!"

"P-TOWN!"

"All right!"

The sprinters clasp hands and let out one last shout.

Sabestine Onyepunuka has been looking on with a whimsical expression. He's the Panthers' sprint coach, and Jessica and Judith's father.

His daughters amaze him, Sabestine says as the squad gathers its belongings from the side of the track.

"I look at them and say, 'These girls can do what they want in life,'" he says. "They can run very fast, yes. But they have so much more going on with them."

In this instance, a father's pride isn't getting the best of him. The daughters of onetime track stars (both Sabestine and his ex-wife, Elizabeth Mokogwu, once represented their native Nigeria in world-class competition), Jessica and Judith are determined to set the track world on fire. Both continue to cement their place among the running elite of their age groups, Jessica on the world stage, and Judith nationally.

The sisters also are in the academic elite at Peoria High, and are extremely popular with their fellow students -- and not just athletes. They are the West Valley school's brightest lights, on the track and in the classroom.

The sisters' track rsums only tell the half of it, but what a half it is.

Jessica won the 100-meter dash in the World Youth Championships last July in Sherbrooke, Canada, with a record time (personally and for the Championships) of 11.31. She also was part of the winning U.S. 4x100 relay team. She's defending state champion in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, and runs anchor for Peoria's dominant 4x100 relay team.

Judith consistently has won in her age group at the Junior Nationals, also in the 100 and 200 meters. She's eminently capable of beating Jessica on a good day, or, as the girls' private coach, Bruce Frankie, puts it, "Jessica knows that if she screws up, Judith will pound her."

Like Venus and Serena Williams, the famed tennis-playing sisters who grew up competing mainly against each other on the practice court, the Onyepunuka girls are each other's toughest competition in Arizona.

Off the track, Jessica and Judith both are in the top 10 percent of their classes. Judith, a sophomore, is a straight-A student. A member of the National Honor Society, Jessica was president of her freshman, sophomore and junior classes. This year, she's student-body president, and not because she runs awfully fast.

"Jessica is an awesome person who knows just what she wants to do," says senior Pauline Dress, who serves with her on the student council. "She knows how to get her points across with the administration without them getting mad at her, and she's willing to help the school in any way possible. I mean, she's the track champion of the world and the student-body president, and you'd figure she'd be stuck up, but no way."

Says Jennifer McNutt, Peoria's student-council adviser: "Jessica teaches me more than I teach her. To see someone with her poise, who has such an insight to things, is really remarkable, unprecedented. It would be natural for other kids to be jealous of Jessica, because what does she not have at this point except money? She has social skills, beauty and athletic prowess. But it's impossible not to like her. The Jessica that I know does not talk about track. I'll have to see her race someday."

Once tall and gangly for her age, Jessica has matured into a willowy yet powerful young woman, who at 5-foot-7 seems built for speed.

"I know I'll never have another one like her, in terms of running, personality and leadership," says Peoria girls track coach Jan Brewer, who does get to see Jessica race almost every day at practice. "Judith is amazing, too, also one of a kind. How lucky can a coach get?"

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