Thursday, November 24, 2011
This story is very inspiring! As the writer said, “read it with the end in mind.” I really want to appreciate Ayo for having the courage to share such a powerful story, one that will inspire our generation and generations to come. In life, we all have the power to change whatever situation we find ourselves, for the better. Read how Ayo found the courage to change his. I hope you are inspired as much as I was inspired! Read on, Read it with your heart :-)
Run with your heart
Guest writer: Ayo Owodunni
I have been blessed by God to be very talented in running. By the time I graduated from high school, I was ranked 10th in the country in the 600 meters, 5th in the state of New Jersey in the 800 meters and top ten in the state in the 400 meter hurdles. I was an all conference champion 3 years in a row and I was named one of the top returning track runners in South Jersey twice. I graduated High School in 2002 and continued my track career at Rider University.
By the end of my college career, I held the school record in the 500 meter dash and was also part of the record breaking 4 by 800 team. I am a three time conference champion in the 400 meter dash and a four year 4 by 400 meter conference champion. I held the fastest 400 meter time in the conference for three years in a row and I was fortunate to attend college for free on an athletic scholarship.Reading about all these great accomplishments, one might think, “this kid must have been born with this amazing talent.” I will say it is an honor for anyone to think so well of me but my story does not flow that way.
The truth is, I was never a good athlete growing up. As a matter of fact I was very horrible. I was clumsy, slow and lazy. I was labeled a wimp and mama’s boy. I remember being made fun of as a young boy at Ona Ara Prismoni Children’s school. I was never one with the crowd, more like ostracized.
When I was 12 years old, I had the opportunity to move to the US.
One quiet boring day in the valley of the Springs in Sicklerville, New Jersey, while having a conversation with my cousin, I was advised to join the track team. “After all,” said my cousin “you are tall and you’re African. You should be good.”
As it turned out, that random suggestion made a lasting impact.
While in 8th grade at Ann Mullen Middle School, I joined the track team. I tried out for everything. I ran long distance, short distance, and mid distance. I jumped, threw the shot put and did everything else imaginable in the sport.
To cut the long story short, I was too slow to run the short distance and too lazy to run the longer ones. I was too clumsy to make those timed and well-defined jumps yet also too skinny to get better at the shot put.
After going through a long list of the things I could not do, I was happy to find out that mid-distance could be very fitting for me. I decided to join the mid-distance group.
My first year of track was NOT a joke. It was not as great as I thought it would be. I recollect running a race for about 700 meters and totally quitting towards the end of it. With about 100 meters to go, I fall over and lay on the track because I was just too tired to go on. I also remember running a race in my basketball sneakers that ended up as a disaster.
The end of 8th grade labeled me one of the worst runners on the team with no potential. My coach had no faith in me. I remember watching Greg May, Oorie Gaines, Jacob Hill, Jim Bonnet, Chris Bledsoe and a few other teammates shine. People rallied around the track when it was their turn to run. They were unstoppable!
I graduated 8th grade and moved on to Highland Regional High School. Once again, I eagerly joined the track team. Yes I was one of the worst runners and yes I was told that it might be in my best interest to find something else for myself but I refused to give up.
The feeling of being part of a team kept me going. I enjoyed the friendships, the joy, the fulfillment, the practices and the competition. I took up another year of track.
Good mentors, great mentors
Two men changed my athletic life forever- Bill Collins and Bobby Wagner, head coach and assistant head coach of the track and field team.
Coach Wagner and I immediately connected. Wags, as we would all call him, was a friendly, relatable, funny, nice, loving and positive coach. He had a great gift of seeing potential in you. He is known to recognize hidden potential and develop it.
Coach Collins on the other hand had a completely different style. He was knowledgeable, experienced, and also a great coach but his approach was totally different. Collins was tough nosed, strict and very challenging. He told you things as they were and that was that. If you ran horrible, he’d tell you. If you were lazy, he’d say it. If you’re slacking, he’ll tell you to get off his team. Coach Collins was totally amazing, in his own way.
My high school career started out just as badly as the middle school career. I was once again one of the worst on the team and track became more of a social gathering than an actual sport filled with competition. I was part of the team and going out to track meets but I never saw myself as being good, so I became comfortable at my present crisis.
The Turning point
I finished my freshman year as one of the bad runners on the team. I had made slight improvement in some areas but I was fed up and wanted to truly make some changes. I made a decision to actually do something. I remember sitting with coach Wags and chatting with him. At this point in time, he had become my personal mentor and we had built a very close and solid relationship.
I recall Wags telling me over and over again that I would be a great runner.
I was appalled. I just couldn’t fathom how a runner like me could become ‘great.’ I remember asking him why he thought I’d be great and I was really shocked at his response to my question.
Wags was totally determined and just had a look in his eyes that expressed his determination to make me the runner that he saw in me. He was determined to make me great! It was from him that I learned that indeed, practice makes perfect. No, more like Practice builds greatness.
Summer of 1999
That year, I made a deal with coach Wags. The goal was to run everyday over the summer and spend time with him. Wags and I decided to work extremely hard and we picked the perfect time to do it- Summer of 1999.
Summer of 1999 was historic in South Jersey. There was no rain for months and the state reservoirs were running really low. People were asked to conserve water and all kinds of tactics were used to keep things on the minimum. It was hot and it was sticky.
The air was humid and South Jersey was absolutely dry. Wags and I picked the summer of 1999 as our summer to make a difference.
Wags and I ran for an hour, everyday. We worked on endurance, strength, heart and commitment. By the time track season rolled around, I was a completely different runner. I was stronger and faster. I had grown into my body and I had some power. It was time to move!
Sophomore year saw a drastic change from the previous two years.
I dropped my 400 time by 7 seconds, 800 time by 20 seconds and the mile by an entire minute. I went from one of the worst runners on the team to 13th in South Jersey and top six in my conference.
What a change in one year.
I will never forget the shock my teammates went through. I was that kid who came dead last in practice everyday only to return the next year as one of the fastest.
By my junior year, I was the talk of the town. I was the 2nd best junior (according to the newspapers) and I was ranked top 5 in South Jersey. Wags and I were excited. Our dream is finally coming to pass and his words dating back 2 years now are finally coming to pass. Our excitement and accomplishments led us to set new goals for the upcoming year.
Setting new goals to beat my last performance
I remember Wags saying to me… “Ayo this year I believe if you put your mind to it, you can become one of the best runners in the state of New Jersey. As a matter of fact I believe we can compete at the national level.”
Wags raised the standards so high for me that I completely shut down. There is no way I’m that good. There’s no way I can compete at a national level. I am just ranked in little old South Jersey. Not even New Jersey but the southern region of a huge state.. I began to lose focus as fear crept in.
I started off the year not up to par. I was a disappointment not only to myself but my coaches. I didn’t even qualify for the state championships or the conference championship. The truth is that there was so much pressure on me that I completely shut down. I wasn’t ready to lead and I wasn’t ready to be the best.
I remember doing the best I could NOT to put myself in positions to win during races. I stayed in my safe haven and rested in my comfort zone. Even though I was one of the fastest on my team, I didn’t qualify for any post-season races.
However there was still hope for me. In the New year, I made a conscious decision to take the challenge to become the best that I wanted to be.
The PRESSURE was on but I was more determined to be the best. I was older and more focused. I ran each race with my heart and a sense of urgency.
Connecting my heart to my race
After the first race of my senior year, I remember having a long talk with my other coach, Collins. Coach Collins sat with me and spoke of our roller coaster journey as coach and runner. He spoke of our love-hate relationship and we both enjoyed it.
As we spoke that lovely day during practice, his words stuck to my heart, “Ayo all I want from you is your heart. I don’t want you to focus on what place you come in or what you’re ranked. I just want you to run with your heart. If you give your best, you’d be your best.”
By the end of my senior year, I was ranked 10th in the country, 5th in the state of New Jersey and 1st in the Olympic conference. I qualified to run the 800 and 400 meter hurdles at the nationals. All I did that senior year was run with my heart. God blessed it.
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Posted by Jennifer Ehidiamen at 9:45 AM