UGA all-star overcomes injury, makes Team USA in Tokyo Olympic Games

In May 2019, Elija Godwin underwent emergency surgery after a freak javelin accident punctured his lung and devastated his training season.

Now, the University of Georgia rising senior is headed to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. And he isn’t the only Bulldog on the roster.

Thirty-one UGA athletes, alumni and coaches will compete in the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the second-largest Georgia contingent in Olympic history, just behind the 2016 Rio Games.

“All these great athletes that I competed against throughout the trials—we all get to suit up in the same gear and go at it with each other,” Godwin said. “I’m ready to compete alongside them and see what we can do.”

Godwin, a human development and family sciences major, is no stranger to competitive sports. The Georgia native grew up playing football with no intention of ever stopping. In high school, he took up track and field to stay in shape during the summer. But when he got a taste of the freedom it offered, he was hooked.

“With football, you depend on 10 other guys on the field for success. Who you have around you can determine the outcome of a game. Track was a lot different from that,” he said. “I was able to succeed anywhere. I was more in control of the outcome of my season.”

By the time he graduated from Newton High School, Godwin had been named 2016-17 Gatorade Georgia Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year and had taken silver at the 2018 World Junior Championships.

The more he trained, the larger his audience grew.

“It was very inspiring because people wanted to see me do bigger things. They wanted to come out and watch me race, which made me want to go out there and do it more and more.”

Making the Olympics

At UGA, Godwin’s athletic career took off. He was named the 2019 SEC Co-Men’s Freshman Runner of the Year and was preparing for the outdoor championships.

Then, everything stopped.

During practice, the runner fell on a javelin, collapsing his left lung. Hours later, he woke up from surgery, sore but determined. The healing journey would require perseverance and weeks of rehabilitation. Godwin faced the challenge head on.

“It was a bad incident, so people key in on it a lot. But for me, it was just another obstacle that I had to work past. I couldn’t let it hold me down,” he said. “I had to battle through it.”

And he did. When COVID-19 delayed the 2020 Summer Olympic Games by a year, Godwin hit the track harder than ever, determined to not just recover from his injury but to overcome it.

“You have these dreams and aspirations that you want to live through, and that alone gave me my motivation to get past that moment and get better and become the athlete I needed to be to experience this moment,” he said.

Now, Godwin’s sights are set on the finish line as he prepares for the 4x400-meter relay.

He’s headed to Tokyo alongside former teammate Jasmine Moore, who qualified in the triple jump as a second-year student before transferring.

The pair will compete on the USA Track and Field team with six Georgia alumni, including Keturah Orji, who earned her bachelor’s degree from UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences in 2018 and her master’s degree from the Mary Frances Early College of Education in 2019.

Three other UGA students are also going for gold in the Summer Games:

Duné Coetzee, an incoming first-year student, will swim for South Africa in the 800-meter relay.

Karel Tilga, a rising fourth-year economics major, will represent Estonia in the decathlon.

Johannes Erm, who qualified before graduating with his dual bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and communication studies, will also compete in the decathlon for Estonia.

“We are so incredibly proud of our 30-plus Olympians representing their countries and the University of Georgia,” said UGA Athletic Director Josh Brooks. “The fact that we have so many athletes competing in such a broad variety of sports is a testament to the elite student-athletes that this great university is attracting. Our student-athletes are making an impact in the classroom, in the community and on the premier competitive stage.”

UGA prepares well-rounded athletes

Off the track, Godwin has equally high aspirations. After graduating from the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, he hopes to build a career helping others.

“That’s one thing that I would do for free,” he said. “I’m that phone call for a lot of people when they just need someone to talk to. It’s in me to be that helpful person who wants to motivate somebody to do better or get someone out of a mental rut.”

Godwin’s motivation comes in the form of family. While COVID-19 safety precautions prevent spectators from cheering on athletes in the stands, that support still crosses oceans.

“My mom is one of my biggest supporters. She’s there for everything,” Godwin said. “And behind her is a community of people—from where I’ve grown up, the people I’ve affected on summer track teams, the football teams I’ve been on—pushing me to not only do it for myself but do it for my city and for the people who watched me make it to this point.”