Athletics showed Soj Jibowu just how far he could push himself.
All the time spent on the track, working to become the state’s best high school 400-meter runner, and then more than that, taught him to stretch beyond what he thought were his limits.
So, when it came time to make a decision on whether to jump fully into his apparel company, Varlo, or keep it as a part-time side venture, the 2001 Saginaw Heritage graduate knew he could take himself to another level if needed.
Jibowu is the founder and CEO of Varlo, a clothing company that specializes in outfitting triathletes, but also offers casual wear for men and women. The company is just over three years old, but its clientele includes hundreds of triathletes, eight professionals, three NCAA programs and even hospitals. Merchandise is sold in eight countries.
All of that is validation for Jibowu, who took the leap to pursuing the company full-time just one year into its existence.
“When I resigned (from a medical sales job) to do this full-time, my wife was pregnant with our second child, my daughter wasn’t even walking yet,” said Jibowu, who now lives in Cherry Hill, N.J., with his wife and two young children. “Where was my state of mind to leave my very comfortable, high-paying job to pursue this – to sell clothes?”
His mind was in the same place that helped him reach tremendous heights as a runner, both at Heritage and Central Michigan University.
Jibowu, who was born in Nigeria and spent much of his childhood in Huntsville, Ala., was part of some incredible Heritage teams. He graduated a year behind eventual NFL safety Stuart Schweigert, who he ran with on the Finals-winning 1,600 relay in 2000. Another member of that relay was Derold Sligh, who won the 400-meter Finals title that year, setting the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals record in the process. The Hawks were LP Division 1 runners-up as a team that season.
“I ran track when I was younger, and I was terrible,” Jibowu said. “In high school, if I look back at it, I probably would have called it impostor syndrome. I think that was me up until maybe like somewhere in my senior year when I started to think, ‘I’m pretty fast.’ … I had so many dominant people around me, in my mind, I was still the slow guy.”
As a senior, Jibowu erased that self-doubt. He led Heritage to its first, and still only, Division 1 Finals title, running the 400 in 48.28 and breaking the record Sligh had set the year prior.
It was working to get to that point that Jibowu still credits with his ability to push himself in all things.
“I preach this all the time: if you have the ability to be involved in sports at a young age, do it,” Jibowu said. “It’s a gift, first of all. You don’t know any better when you’re young, you think you’re just training your body, but what’s really, truly occurring is you’re training your mind and building discipline. You’re building your character as far as who you are as a person. What is your will? How far are you willing to push? Am I able to be coached? Am I able to learn? Am I able to lose over and over again and keep going? Am I able to navigate to feel what it’s like to win? What you’re truly developing is how to manage and handle life.”
Jibowu said he didn’t finalize his college decision until late in the process, as he had to work on his test scores into the summer. While at CMU, he majored in biomedical science and chemistry, and he excelled, admitting he was a much better student in college than in high school.
He was also reunited with Sligh on the Chippewas track team, and had a successful career. He was regularly within the top five in the 200 and 400 in the Mid-American Conference, and won a MAC title in the 400 at the 2004 indoor championships. His personal bests in the races were 21.19 and 46.81, respectively.
After graduating from CMU, Jibowu began working as a pharmaceutical rep, then moved into medical sales.
While he remained active, it wasn’t until he took a trip to Chicago that he discovered triathlons.
“I remember seeing these really cool bikes and these really fit people, and then they jumped into Lake Michigan,” he said. “And I didn’t know that was possible, because I didn’t grow up swimming. I didn’t know that volume of people knew how to swim like that. Then they get out of Lake Michigan, jump on their bikes and they’re flying. Then they’re sprinting a 6K and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, these guys are the real freaking deal.’ I was hooked and wanted to start competing.”
As he began competing, the wheels for his current venture began turning. At this point, Jibowu was living out east and had worked for a pair of successful start-ups in the medical industry. That helped give him knowledge, and confidence, to make his own moves.
“I had always been into clothes and fashion, and how you express yourself with what you wear,” Jibowu said. “There was an opportunity there. The sport of triathlon is as old as me; it started in (1983). That’s a baby. That’s like basketball without the 3-point line. There’s so much opportunity for innovation.”
With that, Varlo was born, and it has since thrived, with Jibowu and the lessons he learned on a track in Saginaw paving the way.
“If you are in high school and have the ability to be in a sport, it’s a gift,” he said. “At that young of an age, truly learning to manage the trials and tribulations of life. That is a gift.”
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PHOTOS (Top) At left, Heritage’s Soj Jibowu wins the 400 meters during the 2001 Saginaw Valley League championship meet. At right, Jibowu is the founder and CEO of the Varlo clothing company. (Middle) Jibowu’s company specializes in outfitting triathletes, and he has taken up the sport after a successful college track & field career. (Heritage photo courtesy of Saginaw News/MLive; current photos courtesy of Soj Jibowu.)
LAWRENCE — If redshirting was a thing in high school, at least two coaches at Lawrence would stick that label on senior John Schuman.
“We don’t want to lose this kid ever,” said Derek Gribler, the Tigers’ first-year varsity football and baseball coach.
“If we could put a red shirt on this kid every year, we would.”
Athletic director John Guillean, who also coaches varsity basketball, agreed.
“He is what we strive to have all our student-athletes achieve: high GPAs, multi-sport athletes, good, overall well-rounded human beings,” Guillean said.
Schuman has participated in five of the seven boys sports Lawrence sponsors.
As a freshman and sophomore, Schuman played football, wrestled, ran track and played baseball.
He had wrestled since he was 4, and went from the 119-pound weight class as a freshman to 145 the following year. That sophomore season he qualified for his Individual Regional. But as a junior, he traded wrestling for basketball.
“My older brother wrestled at Lawrence, so I would come to practices,” he said. “I quit for a couple years (in middle school) because I liked basketball, too. It was hard to do both. Obviously, in high school, I still struggled with choosing,” he added, laughing.
Guillean is thrilled Schuman made the switch.
“He’s 6-(foot-)4, he’s super athletic, defensively he’s a hawk, offensively he can put the ball in the bucket. But really, aside from his skills, just that positive attitude and that positive outlook, not just in a game, but in life in general, is invaluable,” the coach said.
Last season, Schuman earned honorable mention all-league honors in the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference, averaging 9.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Lawrence left the BCS for the Southwest 10 Conference this year, joining Bangor, Bloomingdale, Hartford, Decatur, Comstock, Marcellus, Mendon, Centreville, White Pigeon and Cassopolis. Schuman and senior Tim Coombs will co-captain the Tigers, with Guillean rotating in a third captain.
At a school of fewer than 200 students, Schuman will help lead a varsity team with just nine – joined by seniors Andy Bowen and Gabe Gonzalez, juniors Christian Smith, Noel Saldana, Ben McCaw and Zander Payment, and sophomore Jose Hernandez, who will see time with the junior varsity as well using the fifth-quarter rule.
“I attribute a lot of (last year’s successful transition) to my coach, helping me get ready because it wasn’t so pretty,” the senior said. “But we got into it, got going, and my teammates helped me out a lot.”
Gribler is one coach already looking ahead to spring sports after seeing what Schuman did during football season.
In spite of missing 2½ games with an injury, the wide receiver caught 50 receptions for 870 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“I just like the ability to run free, get to hit people, let out some anger,” Schuman laughed.
Gribler said the senior is “an insane athlete.
“On top of his athletic ability, how smart he is in the classroom (3.88 GPA), he helped mold the culture we wanted this year for football. He got our underclassmen the way we wanted them. He was a big asset in many ways.”
Schuman earned all-conference honors for his on-field performance in football as well.
“I would say that my main sport is football,” the senior said. “That’s the one I like the most, spend the most time on.”
In the spring, Schuman competed in both track and baseball, earning all-conference honors in both.
“Doing both is tough,” he said. “I have to say my coaches make it a lot easier for me. They help me a lot and give me the ability to do both, so I really appreciate that.
“Throughout the week you’re traveling every day, it seems like. Baseball twice a week and track, but it’s worth it.”
Schuman’s commitment is so strong that he made a special effort not to let his teammates down last spring.
“He qualified for state in the long jump and did his jumps up in Grand Rapids, then he drove all the way to Kalamazoo to play in the District baseball game,” Guillean said. “That speaks volumes about who this kid is. He did his jumps at 9 a.m. (but did not advance) and made it back to Kalamazoo for a 12:15 game.”
Big shoes to fill
As the youngest of four children of Mark and Gretchen Schuman, the senior was following a family tradition in sports.
Oldest brother Matthew played football, basketball and baseball as well as competed in pole vault and wrestling.
Middle bother Christopher competed in football, wrestling and baseball.
Sister Stephanie played basketball, volleyball and softball.
“I like to say they blazed a pretty good trail for me at this high school,” Schuman said.
As for feeling pressure to live up to his siblings, “I used to when I was younger, but now I feel like I’ve made my own way and done enough things to be proud of that I’m happy with it.”
His own way led him to achieve something none of the others did.
He was named the Tigers’ Male Athlete of the Year, just the third junior to earn the boys honor over the last 25 years.
“I was very honored to win that as a junior,” Schuman said. “There were good athletes in the grade above me. I guess hard work pays off.”
Guillean said while Schuman is “darn good at every sport here,” an athlete does not have to be a “top dog” in every sport.
“Learn how to take a back seat,” he said. “Learn how to be a role player. That will make you a better teammate and a well-rounded human being.
“Johnny has that work ethic, in the classroom, on the field, on the court, on the track. It doesn’t go unnoticed and, obviously, he’s reaping the benefits now.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence’s John Schuman has participated in five varsity sports during his first 3½ years of high school. (Middle) Lawrence athletic director John Guillean. (Below) Lawrence football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (Action photos courtesy of John Schuman; head shots by Pam Shebest.)