Ukeje warms to her role as an all-arounder
In this Dec. 15, 2011, photo, Niles North's Chinonso Ukeje competes on the balance beam at the "A Star is Born" invitational held at Niles West. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 11, 2013 6:54AM
Niles North girls gymnastics coach Charlie Friedman has spent the last few years encouraging Chinonso Ukeje to become an all-arounder.
But Ukeje resisted because she was not a big fan of floor exercise.
Now a senior, Ukeje has finally given the all-around a try this season, and the results have been positive. In fact, in Saturday’s Lake Forest Invitational, Ukeje scored a career-high 8.0 on floor.
“The last few years I did vault, bars and beam, but floor was not really my thing,” said Ukeje, who was born in London to Nigerian parents and moved to the U.S. as an 8-year-old. “But Charlie saw something in me, and I gave (all-around) a try. It was nerve-wracking at first. But now I’m doing pretty well, surprising myself.”
Ukeje usually scores between 26.0 and 30.0 in the all-around, with her highest scores on vault. But those all-around totals continue to rise thanks to continued improvement on floor.
“She’s increasing her tumbling skills and adding a lot of difficulty,” Friedman said. “She’s more confident and her scores have gone up.”
Friedman said Ukeje, a co-captain alongside fellow senior Shaina Shute, also has made an important contribution as a leader.
“She’s a member of the school’s Athletic Leadership Council, and she has brought techniques she has learned there as far as motivation, team building and encouraging teammates,” Friedman said. “We have a young team, with three freshmen, and Chinonso is doing a good job making them feel comfortable, helping them add new skills and leading by example to show them how to get past their fears and add difficulty.”
Ukeje said some of her leadership skills were developed by learning from past Vikings teammates like Citlali Cuevas, Brittany Ebeling and Katie Karlin.
Another activity that Ukeje said has helped her as a gymnast and as a leader is coaching for Viking Gymnastics Club, the youth feeder program Friedman runs in Niles. There, Ukeje has coached gymnasts between the ages of 6 and 12.
“It really helps (as a gymnast) because I’m telling (the kids) what they should be doing, and then you step back and see it’s what my coach has been saying (to the high school team at practice). It helps a lot,” she said.
For Ukeje, coaching in the feeder program only has reaffirmed that she would like to one day work with children professionally.
“I’d like to be a pediatrician or in an occupation that deals with children,” said Ukeje, who is looking to study biology or pre-med in college, where she hopes to do club gymnastics. “I’ve always had that (interest in working with children), which is why I asked to work with the kids (at the gymnastics club).”