After recovering from a near-fatal injury that took part of his left lung, 22-year-old Elija Godwin competed in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and helped Team USA capture a bronze medal. As the University of Georgia student prepares to graduate in 2023, he continues to train for life’s next big event.

by Kari Apted

Elija Godwin has always been fast. He was only 5 years old when his mom, Ginger Luby, began to realize exactly how fast. 

“Elija was playing football on a little league team in Rockdale [County]. When they realized he had speed, they’d just give him the ball and let him run to the endzone,” Luby said with a laugh. Godwin continued to play running back through middle and high school. He had just one role. “My job was simply to run away from everybody,” he said, “so that became my forte. I was known as that speedy running back.”

Godwin wanted to play as many sports as possible. He initially participated in track as a conditioning sport during football’s offseason, but a coach noticed his speed and invited him to join a track club. His speed resulted in his becoming Newton High School’s first student-athlete to win a national championship, and he zoomed to the top position on Georgia’s list of best high school runners. Godwin soon launched into the national spotlight. In 10th grade, he was invited to The Prefontaine Classic at the University of Oregon—an event ranked at the top of all annual track and field meets in the United States. Athletes must be ranked in the Top 50 in the world in their respective events to even receive an invitation. When Godwin first started competing at the national level, his favorite perk was all the travel. 

“Being flown out to Oregon is one of my favorite memories. That was my first time getting on a flight without my mom—actually, that might’ve been my first flight ever,” he said. “Now that travel has become the norm, I love how track and field is a gateway to networking and building relationships. I get to meet so many people, and it’s opening doors that are establishing me in my career field.”

“It was amazing to be around all those top athletes and cheer them on. Being immersed with people from all over the world was a big, intense, global experience.”

Elija Godwin

After high school, Godwin received a full scholarship to the University of Georgia. He competed with the school’s track team and improved his already-impressive running times. As his freshman year drew to a close in May 2019, a freak accident put his life and career in jeopardy. While doing a backwards sprinting drill, the young runner accidentally fell onto a javelin that was planted into the ground. It impaled his chest, narrowly missing his heart but leaving him with a punctured and collapsed left lung. Emergency medical workers had to grind off part of the javelin before they could transport him to Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center. Through it all, Godwin remained focused. 

“I started coughing up blood, and I wondered if I was going to make it,” he said. “I just prayed and put it in God’s hands.”

Doctors removed the javelin, but Godwin lost part of his left lung. The resulting lower oxygen capacity presented a huge challenge in a sport that requires maximum lung function. His mother was a source of strength for Godwin as he began physical therapy. 

“It was hard because there was nothing I could do but just be there,” Luby said. “He couldn’t walk up stairs or do much until he could breathe again.” 

Godwin returned to UGA in the fall, caught up on missed exams and built back his physical endurance. By January 2020, he was competing again in various college events and pursuing new personal bests. The decision to delay the 2020 Tokyo Olympics a year due to the coronavirus pandemic was something of a mixed blessing, as it gave Godwin more time to train for the U.S. Olympic Trials. In June 2021, Godwin qualified for the final of the USA Men’s Olympic Trials 400-meter race and the 4×400 meter relay. He and his family were elated to learn that he made Team USA and would be part of the contingent that was headed to Tokyo. 

“Only God,” Luby said. “I can only call it a miracle.” 

Luby and other family members gathered to watch Godwin’s events on TV and were thrilled when Team USA won a bronze medal in the 4×400 mixed relay. In Tokyo, the pandemic made for a different Olympic experience than usual. Athletes were only allowed to be at the opening or closing ceremony—not both. Some missed both ceremonies entirely due to time restrictions. Godwin was grateful to be there for the closing ceremony.

“They were serious strict about how much time we spent there. It was stressful traveling that far during that time—very chaotic,” he said. “We had Covid testing every single day. One person from Team USA tested positive the day before his competition and missed it. Seeing people go through that was tough.”

Godwin also expressed frustration with seeing the Tokyo skyline from the Olympic Village and not being able to travel there. “We couldn’t leave the Olympic Village to explore,” he said. “They brought some cultural things into the village so we could experience them, but over this body of water, we could see a big bridge and bright city lights, and I wanted to go see all that.” Even so, Godwin felt that the quality of the experience boiled down to how each individual decided to view it. “It was amazing to be around all those top athletes and cheer them on. Being immersed with people from all over the world was a big, intense, global experience. Plus, just being able to accomplish this? The Olympics? That’s your Super Bowl; that’s your NBA Finals.”

Since returning from Tokyo, Godwin has competed in different SEC and national-level competitions and recently had the opportunity to attend a White House celebration for Team USA. Godwin expects to graduate in 2023 with a degree in human development and family studies. 

“I want to be able to counsel people, like post-professional athletes or younger kids,” he said. “I want to touch other people’s lives, especially people who come from backgrounds like mine.” 

A bronze medal in Tokyo was not the end of Godwin’s Olympic dreams, either. He has his sights set on Paris in 2024. 

“I’m definitely young enough and fit enough to try for 2024,” Godwin said. “I’m definitely going to go for it again.” 

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