After Teslim Olunlade came to the United States from his native Nigeria when he was seven years old, he had no aspirations of becoming an athlete.
“I played no sports whatsoever,” Olunlade said. “My Dad watches soccer all the time, but he didn’t want that for me.”
Olunlade’s older sister Ruka was a shot putter at Lyndhurst, so he considered track and field like his sister.
But when Olunlade enrolled at Lyndhurst High School, legendary Lyndhurst track and field coach Tom Shoebridge took one look at Olunlade and peered into the future.
“Coach Shoebridge grabbed me and said, ‘You’re a hurdler,’” Olunlade said. “When someone like Coach Shoebridge says something about you, you do it. I didn’t even know what a hurdle was. I didn’t question him. I just said, ‘Yes, Coach.’ I just wanted to be around my friends from middle school.”
Shoebridge has a history of developing athletes and turning them into superstars.
“At first, the hurdles looked pretty high,” Olunlade said. “I had a tough time jumping over them. It took me about two or three meets taking three steps before each hurdle. As time went by, I got better at it.”
Assistant coach Ed Tessilone, who is organizing the Lyndhurst boys’ track team while Shoebridge recovers from surgery, said that he vividly recalls seeing Olunlade run and jump for the first time.
“I saw the potential and saw the skills he had,” Tessilone said. “He handled the hurdles and jumps and grew leaps and bounds. Coach Shoebridge does an amazing job with hurdlers.”
Olunlade became more and more proficient at both hurdles events. He also learned how to do the long jump and the triple jump. Practice made perfect.
There was another obstacle. Olunlade developed exercise-induced asthma, which caused him problems running longer distances.
“I tried the high jump, but there was a lot of head hitting on the bar,” Olunlade said. “(Assistant) Coach (Kim) Hykey took me off that for my own safety.”
But Olunlade was comfortable doing the 110-meter hurdles, the long jump and the triple jump. In fact, he became proficient in all three events.
Olunlade also had the opportunity to learn from one of the very best in the history of the school.
Petey Guerriero, the 2015-2016 Observer Male Athlete of the Year from Lyndhurst, was a sprinter and a jumper for the Golden Bears. His work ethic rubbed off on Olunlade.
“I had to respect him,” Olunlade said of Guerriero, who plays football and runs track at Monmouth University. “But at the same time, I wanted to beat him. I was like a foot behind him in the jumps, but I knew I wanted to get to that point someday. He was my first target. Pete would always tell me to run as fast as I could, so that’s what I did.”
Olunlade said that he spent a lot of time just watching Guerriero.
“If you watch Pete jump, the main thing he had was a lot of speed,” Olunlade said. “I have much longer legs than Pete and can hang in the air longer. That was my main thing.”
By the time Olunlade was a sophomore, he was among the top jumpers and hurdlers in the school, not far behind Guerriero.
Tessilone knew that it was only a matter of time before Olunlade would actually surpass Guerriero’s records.
“Teslim is just a special kid,” Tessilone said. “He’s one of the most unique kids I ever coached. He’s very cerebral in many ways. He really gets it. At this point in his life, he’s able to practically coach himself. He’s such a student of the craft and now does it on his own.”
This season, Olunlade has established himself as one of the finest track and field athletes in Lyndhurst history. He has already surpassed Guerriero’s school record in the long jump (22 feet, three inches) and holds the school record in the triple jump at 46-1, qualifying for the nationals in doing so. He also has been clocked at 15.33 in the 110-meter hurdles with the record standing at 14.6. So Olunlade is on full assault to hold that record as well.
Two weeks ago, Olunlade won the North Jersey Interscholastic Conference-Liberty Division championships in the 110-meter hurdles (15.63), the long jump (18-8 ¼) and the triple jump (42-10 ¾).
Last week, Olunlade won the Bergen County Championships-Varsity C Division in the 110 hurdles (15.36) and the triple jump (44-5) and was second in the long jump. He was then third overall at the Bergen County Meet of Champions in the triple jump in 43-11 ¾.
For his efforts, Olunlade has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Olunlade will now move on to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II championships this weekend with the hope of becoming a state sectional gold medal winner.
“I actually have set a standard for myself,” Olunlade said. “I have already qualified for the nationals in the emerging elite group. I want to get into the champions status. I want to see how far my body takes me. It’s been a slow progression. It’s a little more believable now, but it’s still amazing from where I started from to where I am now. I am surprised.”
Olunlade is headed in the fall to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he will compete in track and field. Yes, he’s an NCAA Division I athlete.
“I was looking at engineering schools first and track was second,” Olunlade said. “NJIT has a good computer science program. The coach (Al Alonso) had already reached out to me in an e-mail. He put NJIT in my mind. It’s right here in Newark and I wanted to be close to my family.”
Olunlade has a 3.3 grade point average and earned a score of 1,250 on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests.
He hopes to continue working in mobile and web development, a project he already started while in Lyndhurst High.
Tessilone is not surprised at all by Olunlade’s success.
“He’s one of the most talented kids we’ve ever had here,” Tessilone said. “He can handle it all, from hurdles to jumps to running. When he’s done here, he will be among the best. He’s a fan favorite. All the kids love him.”
When it was announced in the track locker room at Lyndhurst that Olunlade was going to be the Athlete of the Week this week, there was thunderous applause and cheers. The admiration his peers have for him is tremendous.
“He’s very soft spoken and mild mannered,” Tessilone said. “But when he’s competing, you can see that fierceness coming out.”
There’s one goal Tessilone has in mind.
“I want him to make the (NJSIAA) Meet of Champs,” Tessilone said. “That would be really special for him. I know that’s been a goal for him. We’re very lucky to have been around him for four years. He has a bright future, both in the classroom and in life. That’s what it’s all about.”
“As long as I do my best,” Olunlade said. “Then everything else will fall into place.”
Lyndhurst senior Teslim Olunlade. Photo by Jim Hague