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On the run

May 6, 2009


Jennifer Ojiaku.

A three-sport athlete in high school, Jennifer Ojiaku has retrained her focus on distance running. She has already run two marathons, and has plans to run at least 44 over her lifetime.

Photos by Rodrigo Zamith

Senior kinesiology student looks at exercise and rehabilitation from every angle

By Rick Moore

Jennifer Ojiaku does precious little to suggest she's anything other than a model student and citizen. She's dedicated, exuberant, gracious, and extremely involved in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities.

So when there's a chink in the armor, however insignificant, it seems fair to pounce. Ojiaku, it turns out, has an occasional flash of vanity. "I like to run, and I always wanted a run to be named after me," she says, laughing. Recognizing that something like that may not occur until after she dies one day, she "figured I had to create my own event."

While the laughter suggests she isn't all that concerned about the naming rights, she was indeed serious about starting a charity run, which led to the debut of the "Trot for Tots 5K" on campus April 18.

Organizing the run with fellow members of the Pre-Physical Therapy Club gave Ojiaku (pronounced Oh-JAH-koo) an opportunity to leave a mark at the U in her senior year. But it's not as if she's been sitting around for the previous three years. Instead, she's taken every opportunity to immerse herself in activities related to physical therapy while she finishes her degree in kinesiology.

She has volunteered at Children's Hospital and at North Memorial's Joint Replacement Center, and for the past two and a half years has been a student trainer for the Golden Gopher football team. Those opportunities have given her a look at issues surrounding three vastly different populations.

At Children's, she's been shadowing a physical therapist for the past seven months. "I didn't really think I'd like working with kids but I really like what [the therapist] does," Ojiaku says. "Working with that age group is really interesting, [especially] the things that you can do with an infant as supposed to the things you can do with adults and athletes."

She's also seen the other end of the spectrum in her work at North Memorial. There, she helped senior citizens. "It's different for them. I mean, you've got people who fall asleep during rehab," she says with a smile. "You have to say their name twice because they don't hear you. So that's interesting, too."

Then there's her work with the Gopher football team, where she's seen every injury and condition under the sun—and under the opaque gray roof of the Metrodome—from serious knee injuries to something called furuncles, which sent a non-trainer scrambling for an online medical encyclopedia. A furuncle, it turns out, is a hair follicle infection that resembles a boil.

"This one guy had it [on the football team], and it was disgusting and hairy and had pus in it that you had to pop," she says. "Anything and everything that can happen to a football player, I think we've seen it." Too much information, perhaps, but it's all in a day's work in the training room for Ojiaku.

She's appreciative of the value of her internship with the football team. "It's cool for all the students who want to get into some type of therapy setting, because we get to learn how to evaluate these injuries," she says. "And we get to learn how to come up with programs to make them better. We actually get to see them improve as the weeks go by."

Two down, 42 to go...

Ojiaku has been on the other side of rehab, too. She was an all-around athlete at Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, competing in track, tennis, and basketball. Track was her best sport, and basketball dealt her a blow that changed her focus; as a junior, she tore her ACL, MCL, and LCL ligaments—the grand trifecta for knee trauma. Although she recovered enough to return to running hurdles in track, she figured the shock on her knees was enough to keep her from trying to become a walk-on for the U's track team.

Now her eyes are trained on running marathons. Already, she has the Twin Cities Marathon and Grandma's under her belt. But she's not stopping there.

"In my lifetime, I would like to run 44 marathons," she says, laughing. But she's serious about the goal. "It's not really a random number. Number 4 is my favorite number, and I figured 4 was easy to get to, so 44 would be a little more difficult and probably [take me more than] 20 years."

A man she met before Grandma's Marathon last year inspired Ojiaku. "He said he ran 45 marathons, and I was just amazed," she says. "I didn't think that could be possible. But he looked great and he had so much fun doing it. It's not even about the times. It's just about doing something that you love and being committed to it. And looking forward to doing it every year, or a couple of times a year."

While she's counting up to 44 (which would give her almost 1,153 miles logged in marathons), Ojiaku hopes to see a bit of the world, and find a job in physical therapy that suits her tastes, most likely in a clinic.

She was recently accepted to an AmeriCorps position in the Admission Possible program, which works to increase the number of high school students from low-income families that get accepted to college. After that, she grins, she will "come back and be focused and get my final degree [in physical therapy] and then work for the rest of my life."

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