Checkmate: Former Forest Hills standout uses chess skills to spark track & field stardom

Checkmate: Former Forest Hills standout uses chess skills to spark track & field stardom
Former Forest Hills star Oghenakpobo Efekoro is always thinking of his next move, whether he’s throwing shotput or staring down a chess board.
University of Virginia Athletics
By Laura Amato

It was his best move yet.

Former Forest Hills standout Oghenakpobo Efekoro began his college career at the University of Connecticut, but after just one season with the Huskies’ track and field team, he knew it wasn’t the right place for him.

Efekoro – a former competitive chess champion – put in for a transfer to the University of Virginia in 2015 and the decision was nothing short of perfect.

“I decided that it was best for me to transfer to The University of Virginia to pursue a better athletic career and a better academic career,” Efekoro said. “It was a great decision.”

Efekoro’s road to Virginia began during a gym class in high school. The then-sophomore was playing football with his friends when the school’s track and field coach, William Lopez, spotted him and complimented him on his footwork. He was a track and field star just a few months later.

“I qualified for the city championship in both the shot and the disc,” Efekoro said. “I’d never done anything like that before. It was a brand-new experience.”

Despite his initial success, Efekoro wasn’t sure he’d return to the track the next season. After all, he’s never been the prototypical athlete.

He won five chess titles during middle school, volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2012 and was, at the time, certain shot put was nothing more than a slight, athletic distraction.

That was, however, before Lopez asked why he hadn’t come out for practice.

“I was walking out of the bathroom one day at school and he was like, ‘Hey, when are you going to come out for the team?’” Efekoro said. “I’d been trying to avoid him, but I came back out for indoors.”

Efekoro qualified for the state championship in indoor and outdoor competition that season and, suddenly, the colleges came calling. He committed to UConn in 2014, but has hit his stride since transferring to Virginia.

He earned all-ACC honors in shot put in both indoor and outdoor competition last year and was named a second-team All-American in shot put as well.

Efekoro’s strength, however, doesn’t rest solely in his muscles. It didn’t take long for him to realize that shot put isn’t simply about how far you can throw.

It’s about that footwork – the same footwork that caught Lopez’s eye – and a fine-tuned approach on every attempt. In fact, it’s a lot like chess.

“It’s very much a finesse thing,” Efekoro said. “I see a lot of big guys come in and just not do well because they don’t have the training or the coordination or the footwork. It’s really an art.”

Efekoro doesn’t get to play chess as much as he’d like, but he still views everything much like he would if was taking on a particularly challenging board. It’s been a long and, sometimes, unexpected road and he’s always thinking about his next move.

“It’s different actions for different situations and I try to see everything,” Efekoro said. “I kind of see life as a chess game. The decisions you make can have grave consequences or they can be really, really good.”

Efekoro’s next challenge is one of the toughest he’s faced yet – a personal goal he’s determined to achieve. He toured the country playing chess and, now, he’s ready to start throwing shot internationally.

“My goal for this year is to meet the standard for the world championships,” Efekoro said. “I’d compete for my parents home country of Nigeria. That’s my next move.”

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