LONDON 2012 OLYMPICS: UPDATE
Three years after throwing away his U.S. passport and telling his mother he never would return to her homeland of Nigeria, Amaechi Morton will wear the African nation's green and white at the London Olympics.
Morton, 22, will cap an unbeaten collegiate senior season at Stanford by running the 400-meter intermediate hurdles for Nigeria at the Olympics. His first-round heat is scheduled for Aug. 3.
"It hasn't truly hit," said Morton, the NCAA champion in the event. "I'm excited to know that this is actually coming true. Once I get to London, it will feel more real."
The day after graduating from Stanford last month, Morton was on a plane to Nigeria, where he utilized his dual citizenship to qualify for the Olympics representing the country his mother spent her first 16 years.
Nkem Sabena Obiekwe is thrilled by her son's decision but a bit puzzled. "When he went there the first time he really didn't like it at all," she said of a 2009 visit, when Morton ran on a relay for Nigeria at the IAAF world championships.
He returned home to Atlanta from that trip and tossed his passport in the trash. "I'll never do this again," he told his mother at the time.
Obiekwe fished the passport from the trash and filed it away. A couple months ago, her son phoned home in a panic.
"Do you know where my passport is?" he asked his mom.
"Don't you remember throwing it away," she said.
After letting Morton squirm for a few moments, Obiekwe confirmed the document was safe.
Morton could have competed at the U.S. trials last month in Eugene, Ore., and might have made the team. His personal-best time of 48.79 seconds met the Olympic "A" qualifying standard and ranks fourth among U.S. hurdlers this season. Only the top three finishers at the trials qualify for the Games.
Still, Morton chose to go with Nigeria for several reasons, including "being able to represent my mother's homeland I was raised by my mother."
"I'm just very, very excited," Obiekwe said.
Morton said his 2009 experience with Nigeria was at times awkward and left him feeling unloved by the track and field federation. Edrick Floreal, who coached Morton at Stanford, said the Nigerians view Morton differently now.
"When you're a relay guy you sort of just tag along," said Floreal, who is leaving Stanford to become the coach at Kentucky. "I told Amaechi, make sure you go back as a main course instead of dessert."
As one of Nigeria's top talents, Morton is getting closer to star treatment now. He was virtually assured of a spot on the team because he was the country's only athlete with the "A" standard in the event.
Even so, Morton was determined to win the trials, despite travel complications that delayed his arrival until less than 12 hours before his race. He ran a slow time but won anyway, then traveled to Benin for the All-African Championships, where he beat 2011 world championship bronze medalist L.J. van Zyl of South Africa to claim the gold medal.
Morton understands outsiders might wonder if he took the easier route to London by avoiding the U.S. trials. He says that's not the case.
"I had confidence in what I am capable of achieving," he said. "It's kind of bittersweet, but I'm happy with the decision. I'm still going to have to eventually race the same guys."
His goal in London is to make the Aug. 6 final. "I feel everything will come together," said Morton, currently sitting at No. 9 on the world list.
Floreal has bigger dreams for his athlete. "If you get to the finals, I told him anything can happen," Floreal said. "I think he has a shot at a medal."
Morton's mother is still trying to obtain a visa so she can travel to London for what she expects to be a magical moment.
"I just have a feeling he's going to win," she said