Walla Walla Valley Academy's Opara among state's top Class B runners

But he won't be running at the state Class B track and field meet due to religious prohibitions during sabbath.


COLLEGE PLACE - Chinonso Opara knows how to adapt.

It's a lesson the Walla Walla Valley Academy senior learned a long time ago.

Chinonso was 6 years old when his parents, Dr. James and Ngozi Opara, moved their family to the Walla Walla Valley from their native Nigeria on Africa's equatorial west coast.

"I remember," Chinonso said, smiling broadly at the memory, "it being a lot colder. The temperature was much colder.

"But my parents had heard that this was a good place to raise a family. And other than (the drastic climate change), we were able to make a good transition and adapt. If there is one thing I have learned in life, you have to learn to be happy no matter where you are."

He is putting that important skill to good use again this spring during his final year at WWVA and as a member of the Knights' track and field squad.

Unless he stumbles out of the block or false starts - neither of which is likely - Opara is expected to qualify for the Class B state track and field meet in three events during Thursday's Southeast B District meet at Clarkston High School. The top three contestants in each event qualify for state, and Opara enters the meet with the district's best times in the 100, 200 and 400 meters.

In fact, Opara's best 200 time of 22.84 seconds, which he clocked April 14 during a league meet at Martin Field in Walla Walla, is the best time in the state among Class B runners. His personal best 100, 11.34 seconds, which he also recorded at the April 14 meet, ranks third on the state list. And his 400-meter PR of 51.98 seconds, posted April 16 at the La Grande Invitational, is fourth best among Washington Class B runners.

But regardless of what happens Thursday in Clarkston, Opara won't be allowed to compete during the Class B state meet May 28-29 at Eastern Washington University in Cheney.

That's because Walla Walla Valley Academy is a 7th-day Adventist high school that prohibits its students from participating in athletic competition and other non-religious activities on its Saturday sabbath. And all three of Opara's events at state will be contested on a Saturday.

And it won't be the first time the 18-year-old has found his path to state competition blocked by his school's staunch religious stand. Opara stayed home last spring after earning a ticket to the state meet in the 400 meters. And as a sophomore he was a non-participant at state after qualifying in the 800.

Opara, who is not Adventist and describes his family's religious beliefs as "non-denominational Christian," admits that he is frustrated by the policy. To the point where last week he debated the issue with WWVA principal John Deming.

"You could say that we agreed to disagree on the matter," Opara said of his meeting with Deming.

"We had a long talk, but neither of us could change each other's mind. It is my wish to go (to state), and I will be honest, it's frustrating. But I have chosen to not let it negatively impact the future - the rest of this school year and the rest of my life.

"Mr. Deming is a good man," Opara said. "The way I look at it is, I treat him with dignity and respect and he treats me with dignity and respect, and that's the way it is."

Transferring to another school - Wa-Hi, DeSales or perhaps even Touchet - was an option, Opara said, but it was never seriously considered.

"The best way to avoid this situation would have been to transfer out to a different school, but it didn't really come too close," he said. "I have good relations with my teachers and I am a leader at the school. Track is important, but it is not my whole life."

Opara said that his parents were not aware of his meeting with Deming, but he figured they would learn of it "sooner or later."

And it probably won't come as a surprise to James and Ngozi, who no doubt counseled their two older sons - Chibuike, who is 23, and Nnaemeka, 20 - who were likewise state-calibre sprinters who never got the chance to compete at state during their years at WWVA.

"I'm not sure how far they took it as far as school is concerned," Chinonso said of Chibuike and Nnaemeka, who also starred in basketball for the Knights. "My brothers don't like to look back on negatives."

James Opara, who is a family practitioner at the Family Medical Center, decided to enroll his sons at WWVA on the advice of friends when he arrived in the area 12 years ago. The Opara's only daughter, 10-year-old Joyful, will no doubt follow in her brothers' footsteps in WWVA's religious setting.

The importance of faith in the Opara family is reflected in the Nigerian meaning of their children's first names. Chinonso means God Is Near, Chibuike God's Power and Nnaemeka Thanks Be To God. Joyful was born here, her name is English and its meaning obvious.

Knowing that Thursday's meet will mark the end of his high school track and field career, Chinonso has set some personal goals for himself at district before he embarks on a collegiate track career as a walkon at the University of Washington.

"I want to run a sub-11 seconds in the 100," he said. "I'd like to break my PR of 22.84 in the 200. And I'd like to get in the low 51s in the 400. And I would be just tickled if I could break 51."

These are fast goals for a small-school sprinter who began his career as a middle distance runner. As a freshman, Opara translated his cross country skills in the fall into the 800 and 1,600 during the spring track season. He competed in the same two events - "I wasn't crazy enough to go out and do the 3,200," he said - as a sophomore and qualified for state in the 800.

At the urging of Ray Douglas, one of WWVA's assistant coaches, Chinonso switched over to the short races midway through his junior year and he quickly emerged as the district's premier sprinter.

"If I could go back, I would probably do the sprints all the way through," Opara said. "But I think I gained a lot of conditioning from doing the distances."

And by persevering even though the ultimate prize would never be within his reach, he has learned a lot about himself.

"What makes it all worthwhile? That's a tough question to answer," he said.

"It's hard to explain, but you just feel good about yourself. There's a camaraderie that you develop with your coach and also with your training partners.

"For me, it's just an inner drive to reach my best."


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