05 December 2023

SportsAid's One-to-Watch Award shortlist: Yemi Mary John

Few 20-year-olds can say they have two World Championships medals to their name but in her first year as a senior athlete, Yemi Mary John can. The Woodford track sensation’s achievements this year extend to individual performances too, picking up 400m gold at the European U23 Championships earlier in the summer after an U20 world title in 2022.

Yemi Mary John

Following a whirlwind 12 months, Yemi Mary has now been shortlisted in the top 10 for SportsAid’s prestigious One-to-Watch Award for the second consecutive year. The annual Award, launched in 2006, recognises Britain’s brightest young sporting prospects and has previously been won by Olympic champions Tom Daley and Alex Yee and Paralympic gold medallist Hollie Arnold. The top 10 athletes have been selected from around 1,000 rising stars, supported by SportsAid, across more than 60 different sports in 2023.

“There were quite a few differences in the move to seniors,” she said. “I was surrounded by different people, surrounded by well-known faces and the attitude towards it is different in competitions. 

“Sometimes I feel the pressure, but I also feel like I’ve not done enough to prove myself. 

“In a sense, I still feel like the underdog, and I feel like there’s still a lot more to come. 

“Walking out into a European Under 23s was a lot more pressure, people know who I am, more people are looking at me, so it’s just about staying calm and doing what I usually do.” 

Yemi Mary dabbled in many sports from gymnastics to MMA growing up but arrived at athletics later in her teenage years, first competing in 2019. 

Four years later, she was running the anchor leg in the mixed 4x400m relay and took advantage of a late, and well-documented dramatic fall by Femke Bol to win world silver, her first senior representative medal. 

A week later, she ran in the heats of the women's 4x400 metres relay, winning a bronze medal in Budapest.  

“Track for me was an escape at first and then it transitioned from running away from something to chasing a goal, so that was my transition,” she said. 

“It took me away from any other distractions whether I was struggling in school or other circles, it allowed me to narrow it down and try and focus on what I was doing at the time which was track. 

“My first coach was a volunteer coach and when I said I wanted to take it more seriously he dedicated a lot of time to coaching me. 

“I’ve always been fortunate in the sense that I’ve always been surrounded by a supportive group of people but to now be surrounded by people with a lot of goals and high ambition is really inspiring. 

“SportsAid is one of the most important branches of community and support that there is. 

“They offered me the help that I needed, especially at a time where before I had the title and before I had become more known as a name."

As well as her sporting excellence on the track, University of Southern California student Yemi Mary is also passionate about her vocational life off it. 

A committed volunteer, the USC athlete takes inspiration from Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce's Pocket Rocket Foundation and hopes to one day build a legacy on something similar. 

Across her sporting life, her ambitions extend much further beyond medals as she hopes to inspire more young girls and women to embrace their dreams of becoming a professional athlete.

“Vocational life is quite important to me, I worked over the holidays in a homeless shelter which meant a lot to me,” she said. 

“Just helping other people and spreading positivity, trying to put a light in darkness. 

“Inside my sport, I want to get more young girls and young people involved because I think a lot of young girls shy away from the idea of being an athlete. 

“When we think of a professional athlete, it’s mostly young boys that will look at that as a career path so it would just be opening girls’ minds to that idea that professional sports and playing sport for fun is for them.” 

While she grows her career profile and presence within the world of professional athletics, Yemi Mary remains firmly focused on the task at hand, making the Paris 2024 squad. 

“Being an Olympic year, my natural answer to short-term goals must be qualifying for the Olympics. 

“It’s been one of my main goals for forever so having an Olympic medal round my neck would be a big aim of mine. 

“I’d also just love to be able to collect more titles and records, just becoming the best athlete and version of myself that I can possibly become.” 

SportsAid’s annual One-to-Watch Award is backed by Royal Bank of Canada – a long-standing supporter of the charity celebrating 10 years of partnership in 2023. The winner of this year’s Award will be revealed in December with each of the top 10 receiving cash boosts and special in-person visits at their training environments to celebrate their achievements.