Here’s how the American triple jumper started her own women’s mentorship program in Athens, Ga.
The moment any athlete reaches the champion’s podium, they get a platform.
From that position of success, athletes get a chance to teach, share and inspire others to reach their full potential, whether it’s through philanthropy, charity, workshops or self-run programs. So when the moment of glory finally comes — when that platform finally rises — the athlete often asks herself:
“What am I going to do with it? What’s my message?”
For Olympic triple jumper, Keturah Orji, those questions came rather early in her career. In 2016, the now-22-year-old placed 4th at the Rio Summer Games. And while she didn’t make it to the podium, Orji still wowed track fans across the globe. She was just three centimeters away from becoming the first American woman to ever medal in Olympic triple jump history.
Since that day, Orji has won four outdoor NCAA championships with the University of Georgia (UGA) and was named the NCAA Woman of the Year in 2018.
Undoubtedly, the New Jersey native has the potential to become USA Track and Field’s next heroine come Tokyo 2020 and she’s willing to step up to the challenge.
“I want to show American women that we can be successful in this [sport],” she told the Shadow League. “There are other events that are more popular than triple jump, but I want to help set a standard and encourage more young girls to stick with it.”
This is the goal that she focuses on when she’s training with the Atlanta Track Club every day. That’s the platform she stands on when she eyes the sand pit. But if you follow Orji outside the track, you’d know that she’s been working to change lives beyond the realm of sports. She’s currently a mentor and a leader for many young girls in the Athens, Ga. area.
While Orji was still a junior in college, she reached out to Hilsman Middle to launch a mentorship program called “Amara’s Pride”. “Amara” is Orji’s middle name and it means “grace” in Igbo. Orji, whose father is Nigerian, was inspired to use the name, not only because of her culture but because of the values she wants to instill in her program.
“I felt like a group of mentors could grant these kids grace,” she said. “They could love them unconditionally and be there for them.”
In its first year (2017), the program provided 1-on-1 mentoring for 16 8th grade girls. Mentors included various UGA staff and some of Orji’s college teammates. Orji also hosted guest speakers, panels, group discussions and career building activities like vision boarding and goal setting. The young triple jumper is highly invested in giving these women the tools — and the network — to succeed in life.
“I’ve been mentored before and [I know] it helps to have role models,” said Orji. “I wanted to talk to these girls about the importance of education, self-worth, peer pressure and other things that they deal with.”
Orji understands that middle school can be a tough time for many— especially for Black girls in America. She grew up in the suburbs of Mt. Olive, N.J., where 68 percent of the population is white. As the token Black kid among her peers, Orji struggled to find her confidence.
“I was always comparing myself,” she said. “I would look at other girls and notice that they had long straight hair. I thought that was the standard of beauty in the world. I also thought I wasn’t as smart as other people. So when I came to UGA, I was nervous. I thought I wouldn’t do well in school because I got in for track.”
Fortunately, her insecurities slowly started to dissipate after she became a Georgia Bulldog. Orji claims that UGA’s diverse student body helped her to feel more at home with herself.
“It helped to be around a greater Black population and I learned that I had to stop underestimating what I can achieve,” she said. “I think representation matters. You need to see someone who looks like you, doing certain things to see that you can do it.”
She added that being apart of UGA Team United, a faith-based community helped to bolster not only her confidence but her interest in mentorship as well. There she was mentored by former Georgia sprinter Taylor Hollingsworth.
“I’m a pretty shy person [so] I had to figure out how to come out of my shell,” said Orji. “Taylor pointed out my strengths and I learned a lot about myself. She helped me get past my fear and soon I started mentoring people on my team [too]. ”
Her pay-it-forward philosophy and newfound self-assurance thus blossomed into Amara’s Pride.
While Orji had her own challenges throughout childhood, her current Hilsman students face a drastically different reality than the suburban environment she grew up in.
Hilsman Middle School is located in the Clark County School District, which is one of the poorest school districts in the country. Nearly a third of the population lives below the poverty line (the national average at 14 percent). Women ages 18 to 24 make up the majority of that group.
Orji recognized this and made sure to recruit mentors who could relate to these girls. For example, she called upon her friend, Sarah Gardner who also ran for UGA.
Gardner grew up in government housing in Marietta, Ga. — about two hours away from Hilsman. Her mother raised her on her own and financially, they were barely keeping their heads above water. But thanks to an athletic scholarship from UGA, she became the first person in her family to graduate from college and now she is pursuing her secondary degree in sports management.
“If I tried to envision my life when I was ten, I could never believe I would be running four years at a Division I school or finishing my masters at the University of Georgia,” Gardner said. “I didn’t know that was possible. Now I want to let people know that you can literally do anything. Don’t fall victim to your situation.”
In working with the Hilsman girls, Gardner sees her younger self. She understands how hard it can be for some of these students to even speak about what they want.
“A lot of them say that they want to be a doctor or a lawyer and sometimes their friends would laugh at them because it seems like a goal that can’t be achieved,” she said.
Cherrelle Pullen, who’s a Hilsman PE teacher and one of the liaisons between the middle school and UGA, has noticed that Amara’s Pride has helped her students to open up more — not just about their dreams, but their personal lives as well.
“A lot of times they try to keep to themselves,” said Pullen. “But through this program, they have learned how to have dialogue and express their feelings. I think that’s a plus especially with the school district we live in. A lot of stuff goes on on the outside and at homes and in their communities that they don’t really have an outlet to talk to.”
Pullen adds that it helped to have mentors like Orji and Gardner, who are not that much older than these girls.
“Sometimes adults take themselves out of the shoes of kids and we forget that we used to be kids, too,” she said. “We act like they haven’t done some of the things these kids are doing. But [Keturah], she relates to them so well. I admire that about her.”
By the end of the first year, Gardner was amazed by the positive feedback from the students — especially from her mentee. Before they started working with each other, Gardner said her student often argued with her teachers. She was struggling with her grades and she wasn’t sure she was going to graduate.
Gardner advised her on how to turn that around.
“At 8th-grade graduation [my mentee] was crying and she thanked me,” said Gardner. “Just seeing her so emotional and so grateful to go on to high school was amazing. That’s why we do this.”
Today, Amara’s Pride is in its second year and has grown to 20 students. Now that Orji has successfully built the platform, she hopes to grow it and to continue contributing to female empowerment at large.
“Amara’s Pride is about women empowering women,” she said. “I think sometimes we are put against each other [in a negative way], but we should work to push each other. I mean, that’s what the Olympics is about, really. Uniting people. I love pushing women to be the best they can be.”
And so far, Orji’s enthusiasm knows no bounds.