In the world of track and field, the heptathlon and decathlon are tough beasts to tame. Attempted by few, the two series of competition require a mastery of multiple events, all to be completed at one meet. Joel Nkounkou never thought he would be attempting the 10 events required by the decathlon, but he has slowly built his strengths and has found himself at a good point in his UNH track and field career.
Joel Nkounkou is a junior electrical engineering major from Dover. A natural athlete in high school, Nkounkou spent his time playing basketball for Dover High School and picked up track as an afterthought for his senior year. In that one season, he found success in the triple jump when he broke the school record, and qualified for states in the long jump, high jump, triple jump and 300-meter hurdles, eventually competing in New England’s for the jumps.
Despite his earned success his senior year, track was still a casual add-on for Nkounkou’s freshman year at UNH.
“I remember getting approached at meets by the UNH coach like ‘who is this guy’. I really didn’t think about it all until later in the fall when I decided to pick it up,” Nkounkou said.
After doing just jumping events his freshman year, Nkounkou expanded his repertoire to include the other events of the heptathlon and decathlon. Now his outdoor track event list includes the 100m dash, long jump, high jump, 400m, 110m hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and 1,500m. The indoor season uses the heptathlon, with the 60m dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 60m hurdles, pole vault and 1,000 meters.
“It’s a lot of things to juggle. Not everything gets the right amount of time or equal time, so that’s just how it works, just juggling my time the best we can,” Nkounkou said on how he balances his training.
Nkounkou does have favorites as well, citing the hurdles and long jump as his top-two because of his high school days, while the long-distance events like the 1,000m and 1,500m are “just not me”. While this is only his second year doing the heptathlon and decathlon, Nkounkou learned a lot in his time here.
“For me, I didn’t really PR [personal record] till sophomore year for long jump. So, it’s a whole process and I think our program is really trying to appreciate that and grow towards that,” Nkounkou said. Appreciating that process has certainly payed off for Nkounkou, as he placed second in the America East Conference Championships for the indoor heptathlon and had multiple new personal records in different events. Thinking back to his freshman year, Nkounkou sees things differently now.
“My first meet ever I was pumped, I was psyched. Like ‘wow, so energetic, I’m in shape’. Worst meet of my life. I did triple jump and long jump and got nowhere near my PR. Like mediocre stuff, I was so pissed. I couldn’t put my finger on it. But once I started to back away from getting mad at myself for whatever reason [and say] ‘just keep practicing and keep going’ and then it was an uphill trend.”
Joel also takes time to understand his team. Being a junior on a relatively young team he sees the growth and team attitudes of everyone improving from a different viewpoint.
“The team’s young. Only two or three senior sprinters around. A good part of the growing class is that they’re ready to learn. They take the advice of the upper classmen seriously, they really listen to the navigation of the coaches which really helps the success of the team.”
After his success this past indoor season, Nkounkou hopes to translate that energy to the outdoor track this spring as he competes in the decathlon. He’ll be on the hunt for the school record and a top place at the conference championship, which is being hosted by UNH this year. “There’s a lot of good competition, and we’re hosting conference as well. It should be good, as long as there’s not a lot of wind,” Nkounkou said jokingly.
Keep up with Joel and the rest of his team as they take to the track next weekend, March 30-April 1, at the University of Maine and at the Colonial Relays in Williamsburg, Virginia.