Jonathan Ilori, University of Missouri ’15
Friday 6th January 2012, I said my goodbyes, made the lonely walk to departures and embarked on my journey to the US. The University of Missouri was my final destination. After a recruiting process that lasted over a year, and going back and forth with coaches on the east and west coast, I naturally settled for smack bang middle of America. How a two-horse race between two Californian programs resulted in me deciding to go to the Midwest, my friends still ask me today. But my decision was not to be based on the weather, on the social scene, or the brand name of a university. It was the coach. At the time, Kareem Streete-Thompson was the horizontal jumps coach at Missouri, and for me he checked all the boxes. He was an Olympian, a master of jumping and a Manchester United fan. His knowledge of all things British was music to my ears. I often tell students today, find a good coach and you will find a good program. That was my approach to the recruiting process. Let’s go back to that Friday 6th January. I got off the plane to immediately greet the bitter Missouri winter. After a short wait, I saw a black SUV pull in – out came Kareem. A short embrace. As we drove through campus, I felt goosebumps. Going past buildings and facilities I had only seen through a computer screen. It felt surreal. It was at that moment it hit me, “I’ve finally made it here.”
Much of my first few years at Mizzou were full of these surreal moments. Nothing about the town itself blew me away. I was a Londoner after all, in a town of about 150,000. But the sports facilities, resources and sheer size of absolutely everything made my jaw drop. The football stadium held over 70,000, the weight room dwarfed the South London gym I was accustomed to, and the food was unlimited – literally. But where would I be without talking about the gear… Mizzou was sponsored by Nike, so as student-athletes we got access to some pretty nice stuff. I won’t go into too much depth, but when you arrive at your university, you’ll see what I mean… People often ask me what living in Missouri was like. It was of course very different to London, but one of the major things that stood out to me was how friendly people were. If you walk down Oxford Street saying “hi” to people and asking how their day’s going, you’d likely receive some strange looks. But such was the norm in “CoMo”. I’d be walking in a grocery store or just around campus and people would greet me. While we’re on the topic of friendliness, important to note the British accent is much stronger in the Midwest… Moving on. As a student in the US, I did get to experience some of the typical American college activities, such as tailgating, playing beer-pong with red solo cups and unnecessarily wearing my hat backwards. As you can expect however, many of my highlights were in some way linked to sports. There are too many to list so I’ve got a top 3 for you:
1. Watching Mizzou Basketball beat Kansas in Columbia (see video!)
2. Jumping 16m for the first time at a home meet.
3. Walking across the stage during graduation.
If you are a student and I’m your adviser – you’ll hear more, trust me. There were so many moments that make me look back and think “wow I wish I could do that again”. My time there was great, but there were also some tougher moments; I had knee surgery, I had to deal with a coach change and I did not qualify for the National Championships in my final year. While at the time, these were very upsetting experiences, they are part of being a student-athlete and more importantly one’s growth as a person.
I wasn’t the only Brit in the Mizzou Athletic Department. There were 7 of us (a whole tribe!) – two tennis players, two golfers, a swimmer and a soccer player. While we all went to Mizzou for different reasons, the consensus amongst all student-athletes – Americans and Non-Americans – was that it was like being in one big family.
So what was a Brit doing in the Midwest? Having an awesome time, that’s what.