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Gators senior Ugonna Ndu is expected to challenge for the 100- and 400-meter hurdle titles at this week's NCAA Finals.

Wednesday June 5, 2013Final Hurdle: Gators Senior Ugonna Ndu Seeks Strong Finish to UF Career

Gators senior Ugonna Ndu is expected to challenge for the 100- and 400-meter hurdle titles at this week's NCAA Finals.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Erin Tucker knows an elite-level hurdler when he sees one. He was one.

An assistant coach with Florida's track team, 15 years ago the former UF All-American captured the 400-meter hurdles title at the Southeastern Conference Championships.

When Tucker returned to his alma mater two years ago to work with the Gators' stable of hurdlers, he was confused when studying the times of Ugonna Ndu.

Tucker checked with Florida's coaching staff to make sure the times were right or if Ndu was injured.

"I don't understand why she didn't run faster,'' Tucker told them.

Yes, the times were right, and no, Ndu was not injured.

For Tucker it was like hitting the hurdler lottery.

In his eyes the tall, lean, athletic Ndu had potential to be a standout for the Gators and perhaps one day compete for a national championship. He worked closely with her on technique and Ndu implemented a seven-step takeoff instead of the eight-step approach she was used to.

The transformation took time. There were false starts, frustration and missteps. They kept at it throughout Ndu's junior season a year ago. She improved to the point where Ndu thought she could earn a berth on the Nigerian National Team and compete in the London Olympics last summer.

Both of Ndu's parents are from Nigeria and came to the U.S. for college. Ndu grew up in Union, N.J., and developed into a hurdler that both Florida and Florida State chased on the recruiting trail.

As a late bloomer Ndu was lightly recruited coming out of high school and knew very little about the NCAA, SEC or the Gators-Seminoles rivalry. Recruited by former UF assistant Brian O'Neal, Ndu said the "letters started pouring in" once word got out that both Florida and Florida State were interested in her.

O'Neal quickly arranged a campus visit after contacting Ndu.

"I said bye to Florida State and hello to Florida,'' Ndu said.

Four years later Ndu is about to say goodbye to the Gators as she enters the NCAA Championships starting today in Eugene, Ore. The meet is meaningful in more ways than one for Ndu, who turns 22 later this month.

She wants to finish out her UF career with a strong performance and is confident she can compete for national titles in the 100-meter hurdles and 400-meter hurdles.

"I'm trying to win,'' she said. "I feel like I can go faster."

The meet also serves as a dose of redemption for Ndu, who missed out on the NCAA Finals a year ago and her bid to qualify for a potential shot at making the Nigerian National Team that competed in London.

The sting of last summer's disappointment fueled Ndu's senior season with the Gators.

"I was really looking forward to competing for them last year and since it didn't happen, it really motivated me to really get it this year since it's a World [Championships] year,'' Ndu said. "The opportunity to be there is like a dream come true."

Once her collegiate career ends this week, Ndu is scheduled to leave for Nigeria next week for the country's trials to make the World Championship team set to compete in Russia in August.

Life is moving fast for Ndu, who arrived in Eugene coming off perhaps her strongest all-around meet at the SEC Championships at Missouri in early May.

Ndu broke a 28-year-old school record in the 400-meter hurdles by finished second with a time of 56.12 seconds, eclipsing the UF record set by Piper Bressant in 1985. In the 100-meter hurdles, Ndu posted a personal-best time of 13.14 seconds, finishing third with the fifth-best time in UF history.

Through it all, Tucker clapped and cheered as Ndu performed the way he envisioned when he first noticed those slow times and tried to figure out how to help Ndu reach her potential.

"I don't know if she believed me when I was telling her what she could do,'' Tucker said. "She probably thought I was trying to motivate her like coaches do, but I actually saw a year ago what we are seeing now. I just think it's her growing up a little bit and understanding and believing that she can actually do exactly what I was telling her what she could do."

Ndu said the light started to go off for her at the Florida Relays when she eclipsed her then-personal-best marks in both the 100 hurdles (13.20 seconds) and 400 hurdles (57.44). Since then Ndu has continued to improve her seven-step takeoff and shave numbers off her time.

The thought of last summer's disappointment ran with her the whole way.

"I knew I could stand on the line with those girls,'' Ndu said. "I'm excited and really trying to make something happen in my last track meet for the Gators."

It has been 31 years since the Gators women's track team last had a hurdler national champion: Lori Dinello won the 100-meter hurdles in 1982. Dinello is the only one.

Ndu would like to be the next. If she is, Tucker won't be surprised. Not after what he has witnessed Ndu accomplish in the past year.

"I'm excited to see what she does,'' he said. "She is right there."

 

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