Speed Queens

Judith and Jessica Onyepunuka
Jackie Mercandetti

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.

"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!"


"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?"

Judith shot up past her big sister when the pair hit their teens. At 6 feet, she's very tall for a sprinter, and seems more muscular at first blush than Jessica. She, too, is in outstanding physical shape, and loves to compete with everyone -- including Jessica.

"It's not like some people think," Judith says, "that, oh, I'm happy to come in second to my big sister because she's my big sister. I treat Jessica like everybody else on the track. I want to run as fast as I can and win the race. Afterward, it's high-fives, hugs, and get on to the next race.

"She has a big will to win just like me. But I'm like a psychologist. I try to get into people's heads and wonder why they said what they said. Jessica's more like, 'They said that and they're wrong.' I think there can be 200 right ways to come at something."

Judith accepts that she'll be in Jessica's estimable shadow at school until Jessica graduates this spring. Regardless, Judith is very clear on her present and future goals.

Her current track goals are taped on the refrigerator at her mother's home, including to "Set as many records as possible" in the 4x100 relay, on which she runs the second leg.

To that end, she (and Jessica, too) have sworn off their beloved soda pop -- "Too many caffeine and sugar issues," Judith says -- and she's more apt these days to be seen at Subway than McDonald's.

Judith sees a family in her future, as well as a career as a medical doctor -- probably a pediatrician, because she adores small children. The x-factor, as Judith calls it, is her track career, which may take her on adventures of which she now can only dream.

She says she knows that her athleticism is going to pay for her college education, maybe at the University of Southern California (where Jessica will be attending on her own track scholarship next fall), Stanford, or even Arizona State.

But she adds, sounding far more mature than her 16 years, "Track is a very big part of my life, but I don't want it to be my life. It can easily go away in the blink of an eye, I know that. You can go out there and lose your leg or something. Either way -- if I get to the Olympics or I stop running competitively -- I'm going to get a great education. I'm not going to be [19-year-old NBA star] LeBron James, who doesn't have any education, just money."

Asked to describe her sister in five words, Judith wrestles with several adjectives before settling on: "Friendly, talkative, different, opinionated, sisterly."

In a separate interview, Jessica says Judith is "hardworking, hilarious, blunt, caring, mature."

Jessica says she wants to be an attorney, specifically a criminal-defense attorney, after her track days are done. "Mom is sketchy on me being a criminal-defense lawyer," she says, "but I like money."

It won't hurt that she's as fast with her mouth as she is on her feet.

For example, Jessica approached her father after practice a few weeks ago with a request.

"Sir," she started, with an exaggerated emphasis on the word.

No response.


"Daughter," Sabestine Onyepunuka finally replied.

"Can I have $10?"

"What do I look like, a money factory?"

"No," Jessica replied. "You're just an ATM. Can I have $10?"

Sabestine, who toils as a caseworker for the state's Child Protective Services agency when he's not coaching track, tried in vain to keep a straight face. He's been hearing variations of this theme for years.

A few minutes later, Dad forked over the ten-spot.

"In my 17 years of life, I've learned this," Jessica says. "You got to have fun. When you have fun, it takes the hurt away a little bit when you're working so hard. It takes away the negative. As long as someone is having fun, that's what sport really is."  

Coach Bruce Frankie, a Phoenix legend who has trained Olympic-level athletes for three decades, has great praise for the running Onyepunukas -- parents and children.

"Those girls come from a set of parents who are extremely talented and accomplished," he says. "They have been very blessed with great genetics. Put on top of that the solid teaching they've had, and the fact that the parents are very good people, but tough as hell, and you have a combination that's unbeatable."

Jessica and Judith's parents emigrated here from Nigeria almost a quarter-century ago, Sabestine Onyepunuka in late 1979 and Elizabeth Mokogwu a few years after that. Both now are U.S. citizens.

Now 49, Sabestine is seven years older than his ex-wife (the two separated in 1993, and later were divorced). He was raised in what he describes as a middle-class home in the sprawling capital city of Lagos, one of 10 children.

Sabestine says his father was a civil servant who impressed upon him the value -- the necessity, actually -- of getting a formal education.

He says his first love was soccer, Nigeria's national sport, and that he participated in track at first as an afterthought.

"I was fast, but I didn't think much about it," Sabestine says, his perfect English tinged with the clipped accent of his first language, Ibo. "I just ran."

In 1976, he says, he ran for Nigeria's national team against the People's Republic of China at a meet held in Lagos. By then, Sabestine says, he was gearing himself toward the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

He came to the States for the first time in 1979, to attend Grand Canyon University on a soccer scholarship. But Sabestine tore a hamstring badly enough here to cost him any chance at the Games.

"That really hurt," he says about the lost opportunity. "Things in life come and go like the wind."

Sabestine later earned his bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Grand Canyon. "I expected to stay here for four years, then go back home. Still here."

Also from Lagos, Elizabeth Mokogwu met Sabestine while running in the same track club. Like her future husband, she also was a superior sprinter, and competed for Nigeria in the 1980 Olympic Games.

A graduate of the University of Lagos, Elizabeth married Sabestine in a traditional ceremony in Nigeria -- "Dowry and all," she says -- then again in a church marriage after she joined him here in the early 1980s.

Elizabeth never has been able to revisit her native land, where her parents and four siblings reside. Sabestine last returned to Nigeria in 1993, after his father died. Neither of the Onyepunuka girls has been to Nigeria yet, though both vow to go there someday.

These days, Elizabeth teaches at Glendale's Hillcrest Middle School, where she also coaches track. "We haven't lost in three years," she says proudly.

Though she doesn't bring it up herself, research indicates that Elizabeth holds Arizona records for the 100- and 200-meter sprints in both the 30-to-34-year-old age group -- set in 1996 -- and for the 35-to-39-year-old group. (Sabestine holds Arizona records in the 45-to-49-year-old age group for the 100, 200 and 400 meters.)

Elizabeth also coaches the Arizona Rising Suns with her ex-husband, with whom she is on cordial terms. The club is one of the Valley's most successful and enduring youth teams, with about 85 members.

Other than her faith and her family, running (now coaching) has been the most important thing in Elizabeth's life. But she says she stopped competing for a time after she gave birth to Jessica, on May 3, 1986.

"She was a big personality from day one, and I mean day one," Elizabeth says. "Very strong. It took us a long time to really connect in some ways because she's always had her own ideas. But she always has amazed me -- it's inspirational, the stuff she does on her own, how she can be anywhere, with anyone, and take care of herself. To have such leadership skills. . . . My baby."

Sabestine Onyepunuka says that Jessica "liked to run from the start. She'd chase you, and she liked to be chased."

When Jessica was 3, her parents entered her in the Itty-Bitty Olympics, a statewide competition. Little girls and boys ran 30-meter races against each other regardless of gender. Jessica fared well, winning the district and regionals before losing in the state finals to a boy.

Sabestine says track came harder to Judith, who was born February 9, 1988.

"She cried a lot at the beginning," he says, "though I knew she would become a top runner as she got older if she stayed with it."  

As the girls' personalities took shape, their mother says she began to realize that Judith was more like her than Jessica.

"Judith is very calm, and I've always known what to expect from her," Elizabeth Mokogwu says. "She's the opposite of Jessica in a way. Jessica's more like her father, I think. With Jessica, you have to buckle up."

Jessica says she started to run "seriously" when she was 8, and her parents enrolled her in a track club that predated the Arizona Rising Suns.

"When your parents are paying money into something, and they don't have a lot of money, you have to improve or they're going to keep their money at home," she says. "And if you have my dad as a coach, you're going to work hard and improve, or you won't last long, believe me."

Jessica says the dedication level in the clubs is more intense than at most Arizona high schools. And, she points out, "Anyone who is at practice, high school or club can't be getting into trouble. If you work hard enough, you're going to be too tired to get into trouble afterward. I know that a bad kid is going to be a bad kid, but participating in athletics of any type is the key."

Jessica says she and Judith "were tomboys for the longest time as little girls. Mom found it very hard to get us into dresses."

Listening in, her mother adds, "Or go to church."

"Or wear our all-important shoes," Jessica shoots back, a historical reference that brings a smile from Elizabeth. "Now, our mom seems to approve of our choices."

On a more serious note, Jessica adds, "I really like the way our parents brought us up. They gave us our freedom, and the option to make a bad choice, but to have to face the consequences if we screw up. I think we are extremely responsible and dependable for our age, and trustworthy. If we say we're going to do something, we do it."

Out of her mother's earshot, she speaks of "how much I admire my mom, though she probably thinks I don't because I don't say it enough. She moved to a new country when she was 25 or whatever, with her next closest family clear across on the other side of the world. Her divorce from my dad wasn't as clean as possible, but she picked herself up and moved along. Everything she has, she earned. My mom is seriously -- a mom."

Jessica says she vividly recalls watching in awe as an 11-year-old as then little-known sprinter Marion Jones won the 100-meters at the World Track Championships with a time of 10.83. (To put that time into perspective, Jessica's best of 11.31, while only a half-second slower than Jones' championship effort of 1997, is an eternity in the world of major-league track.)

Jones soon became known as the world's fastest woman, and won five Olympic medals (including three golds) at the 2000 Games in Sydney.

"It seems so clich for me say that she's my track hero, but it's true," Jessica says of Jones. "We played the tape of that [1997] race out. She was so tall and strong. Unbelievable focus. If she comes back and wins this year at the Olympics after everything [Jones gave birth to a son last June], it'll be the greatest."

The Onyepunuka girls continued to dominate their age groups in Arizona and the Southwest as they reached their teens, and then into high school. Peoria High won the state championship in 2002, then again in 2003. The latter win came in part because of the addition of Judith, then a freshman, who joined her sister as an All-State performer (Jessica also earned prep All-American honors).

Last May, Jessica learned she'd been chosen to represent the United States at the World Youth Games, held during the second week of July across the border in Ontario. The event is open to athletes between 15 and 17 years old.

To help defray expenses, she wrote an essay to the U.S. Track and Field Association, which gave her $500. The Do Right Club, another Valley track outfit, chipped in more money.

The following month, she flew by herself (her parents couldn't afford to go) to Buffalo to meet her teammates for the first time.

Jessica says she didn't know what to expect from herself. For one thing, the 17 days out of state was the longest time she'd ever been away from her family.

"I'd never been on an international stage before like that, and there are a lot of girls just as fast as I am," she says. "I knew I'd give it my best. But I just didn't know."  

Jessica Onyepunuka describes the 100-meter finals at the World Youth Games, on July 11, 2003, the day she became a national name in track:

"It was gray and cold out there, not exactly Arizona weather. I was excited, but under control. You can't think too much or the race is over, but you have to realize where you are. It's, 'C'mon, Jessica. You're fine. You've done this before. Pump your arms, make the transition. Don't struggle. Focus on your lane.' It's all in your head. I know that seems like a lot of thoughts in such a short period of time. It's complex. But you know what you have to do. In the end, I was just running."

Jessica's main competition in the race was Krystin Lacy, her roommate at the Games, who had just turned 16 a few days before. The Dallas resident's lanky physique and running style has drawn comparisons with Jessica's hero, Marion Jones, but her height didn't intimidate Jessica, who runs beside her towering sister day after day.

Jessica edged Lacy at the tape to take the gold medal. Then she draped herself in the U.S. flag and jogged around the track in victory.

"You seriously become American when you do things like that," she says. "You become so proud of your country. Then the media is talking to you, then you go to the medal tent. What I really wanted to do was call home."

Finally, she set up a three-way call to Arizona between her mother and sister, and her father.

"Jessica was crying, and she never cries," Judith recalls. "The whole trip to Canada was huge for her, self-esteem-wise. She came back as the same person, but different, too, more confident of her abilities."

Back in Arizona, Jessica started to seriously entertain college scholarship offers from some of the nation's premier track programs, including Louisiana State, ASU and USC.

Ron Allice, USC's director of track and field, says he had Jessica in his sights well before she broke the tape at the World Youth Games.

"We look for the top people in the country, and we've had a great run of women sprinters in our program, several future world champions," Allice says. "Once I spoke with Jessica, I knew she was so bright, so vibrant, so special, with so many assets beyond being able to run fast. I could see what she could bring to our program.

"I was very honest with her -- I wasn't recruiting her as an athlete. She obviously has tremendous natural leadership qualities. She actually wooed us, not the other way around."

Last fall, Jessica took official recruiting visits to LSU and USC. She says she enjoyed herself at both schools, and also has a healthy respect for ASU's program -- "After all, I'm an Arizona girl" -- but finally chose USC last November.

Tina Fernandez, Jessica's sprint coach-to-be at USC, says she was thrilled.

"I fell in love with her and so did our athletic administration," Fernandez says. "She's very eloquent, and funny, too. Can't you just hear that laugh of hers? She's done things on and off the track that kids her age haven't come close to doing, but she's not close to reaching what she's going to reach. Her goals for life are high, but very realistic. It's funny, but her goals in track are not as high yet as she may possibly take them."

The coach pauses before making a final comment.

"I honestly believe Jessica Onyepunuka is going to be the best athlete that we have coming to USC this fall. I mean in all sports, men and women."

Jessica informed her other pursuers of her decision, which she says was painless compared to telling her mother.

"I really feel bonded with ASU because it's the university in the place where I live," Elizabeth Mokogwu explains, "but I can't make her go where she doesn't want to go. I keep telling myself, ÔShe's only going to be six hours away, that's all.'"

The Onyepunuka sisters and their father rouse themselves in the predawn hours of Sunday, February 15, for a trip to frigid Flagstaff.

They are heading up the hill for an indoor meet at Northern Arizona University with dozens of other kids and their parents from the Arizona Rising Suns track club.

At about 7 a.m., the squad steps into the cavernous JL Walkup Skydome for the all-day event, which will include more than 1,000 athletes of all ages from five Western states. It's the first official competition of the new year for Jessica and Judith, and for their Peoria High teammate and friend, Keegan Herring.  

Jessica passes the hours as she awaits her race by alternately listening to music and talking on her pink cell phone with her boyfriend, Chandler Hamilton star running back Trammell McGill. She loves Jay-Z and Eminem -- "I'm an Eminem groupie" -- though she's listening to Alicia Keys as she slowly stretches out in her meticulous pre-race ritual. (Judith favors a harder-edged sound, and lists rappers Chingy, Twista, and Juvenile as her main musical squeezes.)

Though the Onyepunuka girls and Herring are the Rising Suns' obvious superstars, you wouldn't know it by watching how easily they interact with the little kids on the team.

The sisters stop what they're doing whenever one of the club's youngsters prepares to run. They cheer loudly as their diminutive teammates, some of them as young as 6, run their sprints in the team's orange-and-white uniforms.

"We want to be role models for those kids," Judith says of their exuberant support. "I remember really looking up to the older runners when I was coming up in the club, and I remember how badly I felt when I saw some of them dropping out of school, quitting track, and so on. I want just one of those kids to say, 'I'm going to be like Jessica and Judith when I grow up.' Then I want that kid to do something good."

Bruce Frankie still loves to talk about his old protégé Dwayne Evans, a Phoenix sprinter who won a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympic Games.

Evans was 17 years old at the time, and most observers before the Games scoffed at his chances of becoming the youngest track medal winner ever.

Coach Frankie says he sees a window of opportunity for Jessica Onyepunuka to repeat Evans' historic performance this summer in Athens, and he's told her as much.

"She was kind of amazed when I told her I was thinking in those terms. If you shoot for the very best, and prepare for the Olympics, and you have the ability -- which she has -- then you can put yourself in position to make for it."

The coach suggests Jessica may have an unspoken advantage in the short run -- pun intended.

"Jessica is a 100 percent drug-free athlete," Frankie says, "and when you take that into account, what she has accomplished is just sensational. Being a drug-free athlete in today's climate is a rare commodity, but I think people are going to be more cautious now for a while because the spotlight is on drugs. But with all the masking [of drugs] that goes on, it's going to be difficult for her down the road because she's clean and she's going to stay clean. The fewer people that are 'juicing' this summer [at the Olympic Trials], the better chance that she has."

Still, Frankie recognizes "a lot of things would have to happen for Jessica to make the Olympic team -- who she draws in her heats, injuries to others, how she's running that day. Everything is timing. I can also see a scenario for her in 2008."

Sabestine Onyepunuka says he doesn't want to think about all that just yet, and would much rather have Jessica continue to work hard and stay focused on the present.

"We'll cross that bridge when we have to, but we don't have to yet," he says.

That said, Jessica is aware that summer isn't that far off. "I'm just so sketchy about it," she says. "Maybe I'm a little bit scared of failure if I go the big route."

Judith already knows where she's going this summer -- to the National Junior Olympics in Oregon, with an eye on earning a spot in July 2005's World Youth Championships, to be held in Morocco.

Before then, however, the sisters will try to help Peoria High defend its state championship in May. Jessica easily won the 100- and 200-meter races at the season's first big outdoor meet last Saturday at Tolleson High. (Judith sat out the meet, still recovering from her bad hamstring and a touch of the flu.)

This weekend, the Onyepunukas will be testing themselves against national competition at the Nike Indoor Championships in Landover, Maryland, the nation's premier indoor meet for high schoolers.

Both girls are keenly aware that this high school season may mark the last time they compete together. Separately, both girls have a difficult time discussing that possibility.

"I try not to think about it," Judith says, looking off into the distance, "or I tell myself it's way down the road, even though I know it's not."  

Jessica expresses that same emotion in her own way: "Remember Michael Jordan saying last year that every game was more meaningful because he was retiring. I'm not retiring, but it's the same for me. I look at my sister out there on the track carrying on, giving me or my dad or somebody else a hard time, then laughing and laughing. I want to enjoy every last second of this."

E-mail, or call 602-229-8433.

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