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.”
2021-22 Made in Michigan
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July 14: Portage Central Champ Rolls to Vanderbilt, Writing Next Chapter in Alabama - Read
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June 30: Hrynewich's Star Continuing to Rise with Olympic, Pro Sports Arrivals - Read
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.)
With two elite standouts comparable to the best pairs on any team statewide, and a deep group of sprinters capable of scoring major points, Berrien Springs track & field coach Johnathan Rodriguez had a feeling this could be a special spring for his boys team.
He scheduled tougher for that possibility, and planned everything pointing toward the Lower Peninsula Division 2 Final on June 4.
But Rodriguez didn’t breathe easily until that morning at Ada Forest Hills Eastern.
“I think the whole month, I think I was on pins and needles thinking of everything that could go wrong or wondering if we were ill-prepared or if we didn’t run them enough,” Rodriguez said. “And then we got to the meet that day, and they were just fresh and jumping around and happy, and we’re loose. They did very well.”
Berrien Springs – the MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for June – capped its season that day with its first MHSAA Finals boys track & field championship.
The title also was the first for the school in any sport since 2006, when the Shamrocks’ baseball team won the Division 3 title.
“We weren’t big on trying to win every meet. We were just thinking, all right, let’s try to be healthy for that state meet. So we were kind of smart in how we handled things and just scheduled things out so we can peek at the right moment,” Rodriquez said. “And I think it’s kind of a gamble that made us all uneasy, but they were just on fire that day.”
The boys track & field team had finished LP Division 3 runner-up in 2018, its highest Finals finish since coming in second in 1953. But with enrollment lines driving downward the last many years, Berrien Springs found itself it a much different spot beginning in 2021. The Shamrocks went from one of the largest schools in Division 3 to one of the smallest – the 11th-smallest of 155 teams this season – in Division 2.
Still, Berrien Springs received a strong indication it could compete with anybody this season when it ran at an invitational April 29 in Warsaw, Ind., against a number of larger Indiana schools include state power Carmel. Senior Jamal Hailey won the 100 and 200 meters, the 400 relay finished second, and senior James York was third in high jump as the Shamrocks hung with competition similar to the best they’d see in Michigan this spring.
Berrien Springs also possessed the right strengths to succeed in a championship format. The Shamrocks won their Regional by 37.5 points May 20 in part because the sprint group took nine top-eight places in the 100, 200 and 400 and won the 400 and 800 relays. The same formula worked as they won the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference championship meet the next week.
At the Finals at Forest Hills Eastern, Hailey won the 100 (10.77) and 200 (22.11) and York won the long jump (22-10). The 400 relay of senior Junyoung Chung, York, sophomore Jake Machiniak and Bailey won the 400 relay (42-44), and senior CJ Porter, Young, freshman Zander White and York placed eighth in the 800 relay (1:31.11). Freshman Noah Jarvis just missed scoring with a ninth place in the 400 (50.99).
With points spread out across several contenders, Berrien Springs’ 41 won the meet by eight.
Hailey finished the season undefeated in the 200 and with only one non-win in the 100, a runner-up finish at an early-season invitational. The 400 relay also was undefeated except for that second place in Indiana. York was undefeated in long jump except for finishing second in the Regional and league before coming back to win at the Finals. The 400 relay won every time he was a part.
Berrien Springs has had some recent success in other sports, particularly with Hailey leading a football team that went 10-1 last fall. This spring’s championship could be a catalyst for more Finals-level success in the near future across other sports.
“I hope so. I think that every kid that we had qualify (for the Finals) was a multi-sport athlete kid, and I think our 4x1(00) team, everybody on there was a three-sport athlete guy,” Rodriguez said. “Our athletic department works well, like our football guys lift with football two days a week and then come after track practice, so we have that nice working partnership with all the athletes.
“Now that we’ve shown that we can get there, I think it’s (shown) the kids at our school that hey, we can beat the bigger schools. We can hang. Track did it. Maybe we can do it next.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2021-22
May: Houghton boys golf - Read
April: Plainwell girls soccer - Read
March: West Bloomfield girls basketball - Read
February: Cadillac girls skiing - Read
January: Hartland hockey - Read
December: Midland Dow girls basketball - Read
November: Reese girls volleyball - Read
October: Birmingham Groves boys tennis - Read