Leaper of faith
• Long jump champ Gogo Peters' strong beliefs inspired family, friends
He runs and jumps and smiles and flirts, drawing attention to himself just by being an adorable 3-year-old. His mother watches proudly, glowing despite the pain she holds inside. She knows his father may be gone, but his legacy lives on in the little boy named Elijah Peters.
They called his father Gogo. It wasn't his nickname, although the man hardly slept Ñ always full of energy, wanting to help somebody in need, be a big brother to Portland area track and field athletes or spread God's word. It was his real name: Gogo Mpakaboari Gogo-Peters, from Nigeria.
On March 15, at the interchange of northbound Interstate 405 and I-5 on the Fremont Bridge, Gogo Peters was hit by a car as he changed the flat right front tire on his Ford Taurus. The man who inspired so many died at the scene.
Shawn Peters still talks about her husband in the present tense. She can't allow herself to believe Gogo has gone away at age 31. Maybe in body, but not in spirit. Never.
He had been an accomplished track and field athlete, a Nigerian champion in the long jump, a conference champion at Iowa State University in the long jump and triple jump. In 1996, he qualified for the Olympics. He was still competing, but in recent years had focused on coaching, starting the Uprising Track and Field Club in Beaverton, and mentoring jumpers at Westview, Lincoln and Portland Christian high schools.
Athletics gave Peters the forum to spread the gospel. As many sprints and jumps as Gogo performed to keep in shape, he derived the most energy from praising the Lord. He attended the 2000 Olympics not to compete but to try to convince athletes, officials and fans that the Lord was the true champion of the world. He had planned to do the same in Athens, Greece, next year.
Joe DeLoach, the man who beat Carl Lewis in the 1988 Olympic 200-meter race, worked under Gogo in Lay Witnesses for Christ International. Gogo had risen through its ranks to become director of evangelism.
'He drew people into the kingdom,' DeLoach says. 'A great one-on-one evangelist. He won many souls.'
Upon hearing of Peters' death, DeLoach mourned with everybody else, but only briefly.
'Gogo was prepared for his ultimate destination,' he says. 'He had settled the issue of eternity. No better place to be than with the Lord. It's safe to say he would not come back here after he got a taste of heaven. He is happy.'
Shawn Peters, who lives in Beaverton, will earn her degree from the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland soon and try to find work as a naturopath.
But she realizes tough times are ahead. She still can't put the accident behind her.
Multnomah County prosecutors have lodged a criminally negligent homicide charge against James David Maloney, 40, of Troutdale, saying his car struck Gogo by the side of the freeway. A grand jury indicted Maloney on April 29, and he pleaded not guilty. A trial is set for June 23.
Shawn Peters has consulted with an attorney, Curt Kinsley, who says he has filed a petition for a wrongful death claim. Peters, 28, plans to take the matter to civil court after the conclusion of the criminal case.
'Your heart goes out to someone like this,' Kinsley says.
Shawn Peters does not want to talk about the accident, the criminal charges or any civil case. She prefers to pay tribute to Gogo.
'I have received e-mails from people all over the world, from people he's touched, if even for a day,' Peters says, citing correspondence from Canada, Fiji, Australia, Nigeria, London, Norway, Germany and, of course, the United States.
Hundreds of well-wishers piled into a Forest Grove funeral home on May 20 to memorialize Gogo. Gogo's widow nearly tears up just thinking about the outpouring of love.
'The most unselfish person you could meet,' family friend Valire Seeley says of Gogo.
He and his wife started the Uprising Club, and Shawn Peters continues to keep the club going despite her busy schedule Ñ and the fact that Gogo was the athlete, not she. He always wanted to be called 'an athlete' and 'a friend,' says Lauren Caster, an Uprising member. 'He didn't want to be called 'coach.' '
Gogo coached Irie Searcy when she competed for the Uprising Club and Lincoln High. 'His inspiration will always be with me,' she says. 'Very energetic, extremely positive.'
'Gogo, I feel like I took you for granted,' Destiny Fuller, an Uprising member from Vancouver, writes in an emotional memorial testimony.
One of Gogo's disciples, Jesse Mays of Lake Oswego, has gone on to compete at the University of Oregon. He calls Gogo 'my big brother,' Shawn Peters says. Mays took up wearing a white glove on his left hand, which Gogo had been known for.
Gogo also coached a 78-year-old woman who holds the Oregon state age-group record in the long jump.
Gogo had brought in DeLoach, fellow Olympian Chandra Cheeseborough and Jamaican sprinting star Richard Bucknor to help at camps. His track and field buddies, Paul Scarlett and Billy McKinney, help out his widow these days. Scarlett, a former Brigham Young University athlete, met Gogo through the Oregon International Athletics club in 1998.
'It's a great loss, but he made such an impact, it carries on,' Scarlett says. 'So influential, he's not easily forgotten.'
The stories about Gogo and his religion are plentiful:
Former Iowa State coach Bill Bergan, who brought Gogo to the United States in 1991 with a scholarship offer, says the morning after the Cyclones beat Oklahoma in a conference meet, Gogo woke up and met the Sooner athletes at their bus to wish them good luck and hand them religious cards.
Bergan always watched during meets as Gogo would give out his cards. 'You knew it was sincere and not pushy,' he says. 'In regular conversations he would quote verses from the Bible. It was so natural.'
At the memorial service, a friend told of the time he and Gogo were travelling around the United States and Canada for track meets and happened across a man who was down on his luck. They gave him all their money. The friend asked Gogo, 'What are we going to do? We don't have any money.' Gogo told him, 'We'll be OK.'
Shawn Peters says many times her husband 'would literally give the shirt off his back at meets. He'd empty his pockets to help somebody. And then he'd ask somebody else to empty their pockets.'
An accountant by degree, Gogo sold cars recently, and had grand designs on using the money to build an indoor track and field facility in the Portland area.
'The Nigerians on our team were tight,' Iowa State coach Steve Lynn says. 'I talked with them after (Gogo's death) and they had the same feeling: It was the most content Gogo had been Ñ ever. He was making some money selling cars, and every time he sold a car, he took it as a personal thing like he helped that family.'
He wasn't a showboat, but Gogo had a signature yell before every jump. 'Boom! Boom! Boom!' Scarlett says. Everybody associated Gogo with 'Boom!' which helped him visualize when to explode on a long jump. Fans would yell it back at him.
He would always write 'Jesus Saves' or 'God Loves You' on his shoes.
Gogo won six Big 8 Conference championships at Iowa State, topping out at 25 feet, 7 1Ú4 inches in the long jump and 53-5 1Ú2 in the triple jump. The latter is still the school's indoor record. Portlander George Ogbeide, an NCAA champion and Olympian and former WSU great from Nigeria, remembers marveling at Gogo. Few 5-foot-8 athletes can jump that far.
'I'm 6-4. Most jumpers I know are at least 6 feet,' Ogbeide says. 'He had something special. It was incredible.'
Good friend Gabriel Lessor, of Portland, first saw Gogo at a junior competition in 1987. 'I just saw this 5-3 or 5-4 jumper, and it was amazing because he had tremendous springs,' Lessor says.
Gogo made the 1996 Nigerian Olympic team, but a knee injury kept him from competing in Atlanta. He still competed in Northwest and California events. Scarlett remembers Gogo, at a simple all-comer meet, getting excited with the other athletes who gathered as he long jumped Ñ despite a sore groin. Gogo almost jumped out of the pit.
'So animated,' Scarlett says. 'It was hard not to know Gogo.'
Before entering track and field back in Nigeria, Gogo had another claim to fame: World Disco Dance champion. Shawn Peters bursts out in laughter at the mention of it. 'He always did the 'robot,' ' she says, hooting.
Shawn Peters misses her husband, whom she met while attending Iowa State. Asked to describe her feelings, she doesn't utter a word, only stares ahead and smiles. Gogo wouldn't want her to do anything else.
Writes Portland Christian coach Andrew Jannsen, in a memorial testimonial: 'Gogo's excitement for heavenly things, not his track knowledge, is what we will miss the most. It's hard to imagine anyone who would be happier at the prospect of meeting his Savior than Gogo.'
Shawn Peters has handled her husband's death well, her friend Seeley says. She takes solace in some words from Gogo's well-worn Bible, from Corinthians 15:58, that reflected his nature:
'Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for as much as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.'
'Abounding,' described his love of long jumping, unmovable was his personality and labor for the Lord his love. And Gogo's spirit will live on in his children.
Two days after Gogo died, Shawn Peters got a phone call. Gogo would have another child, the doctor told her. Everyone hopes for a girl. Gogo already had picked out a name in his Nigerian dialect for 'his little girl,' says Shawn Peters, who will reveal only the meaning of the name before the birth.
'God will fix it.'