BOGACZYK: Fofanah Runs to NCAA with More than Records
The Word on the Herd-May 23, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- The difference in Isatu Fofanah's races is measured in hundredths of a second. However, Marshall's star sprinter has been more like a distance runner in making a very long trip to her first NCAA Championships.
Fofanah heads to Jacksonville, Fla., next week for the East Preliminary of the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships, scheduled Thursday through Sunday at the University of North Florida's Hodges Stadium.
She's entered in the 100 and 200 meters -- two of the four events in which she owns individual MU school records.
The Sierra Leone native and Edmonton, Alberta, resident is among 48 first-round competitors in each event. It's the first NCAA appearance for the redshirt sophomore, who is the last Herd student-athlete in competition in the 2014-15 school year ... and lists her athletic hero as legendary U.S. Olympic gold medal sprinter Wilma Rudolph.
Fofanah -- you can call her "Ice" -- reset the 100 and 200 school records on multiple occasions this season. Her Marshall mark in the 100 was 11.49 seconds at the recent Conference USA Championships in El Paso, Texas. The 200 standard of 23.72 came at the Virginia Challenge in Charlottesville on April 18.
She also anchored the 4x200 relay team that reset the Herd record twice at the Penn Relays last month. Kametra Byrd, Shanice Johnson, Naja Greer and Fofanah ran a 1:36.49 in the final at Franklin Field.
Fofanah is the Herd's 16th NCAA preliminaries qualifier in individual events since 2008. The 4x400 relay team also qualified in 2013.
She will be trying to become Marshall's fourth NCAA Outdoor finals qualifier in the last three years, joining Vanessa Jules (heptathlon) and Crystal Walker (long jump) in 2013, and Jasia Richardson (triple jump) in 2014.
"I guess it really hasn't sunk in yet because for me," Fofanah said when asked about the NCAA qualifying accomplishment. "This is kind of just like the beginning, so I don't want to get my hopes up too high and have too many expectations, because then I tend to overthink and overanalyze things.
"I just want to let things flow, and let it happen, and whatever will be, will be."
Fofanah, 22, is finishing her first season at Marshall. As a freshman in 2012-13, she ran at Northern Arizona, where she set the indoor school record in the 60 meters (7.36 seconds). She left NAU at the end of the 2013 spring semester, then signed with Colorado State.
"I think I just lost myself when I was at NAU," Fofanah said. "I didn't know what I wanted at the time and I kind of lost sight of my priorities. I didn't compete for Colorado State, just signed a letter and ended up not going.
"I stayed home, got injured (torn right hip flexor), had a lot of personal problems I was going through, so I took a year off."
How did she get to Marshall, where she enrolled last August?
Fofanah said Colorado State Coach Kareem Abdel Wahab told Herd assistant coach Don Yentes -- a former Wyoming head coach who knew Wahab in the Mountain West Conference -- about the transplanted native of Africa.
Yentes, who works with Herd sprinters, "just called me one day and asked if I wanted to come to Marshall. I figured, `Why not?' It was an opportunity and my education would be paid for, which is the most important thing."
Fofanah also said through the sport and nurturing coaches and teammates, she has found a familial atmosphere that she had missed in a life that has been about coping and finding a home on a track oval.
She was orphaned at age 6 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, when both of her parents died in the west Africa nation that was strife-torn during a decade-long civil war.
"I lost both of my parents when I was very young and after that my brother and I were separated and we went to live with aunts and uncles," Fofanah said. "My aunt -- my mom's oldest sister -- lived in Canada, she decided to sponsor 13 of our family members over to Canada.
"We all came over -- June 24, 2001 -- and we were all living in one house when we came, all 13 of us family members. It was really hard, 13 people in a two-level house. It was chaotic. I thought living with four people now was hard, but with 12 other family members in there, was very difficult."
Fofanah said her aunt and uncle "decided to take my brother and me in" in rural Ponoka, Alberta, some 90 minutes from Edmonton.
She wasn't done moving, however.
"My aunt and I had a fallout, so I went to live in Edmonton to start my 12th grade (at Harry Ainlay High School)," Fofanah said. "I was living with my high school coach, club coaches. Being African and wanting to live the Canadian way or the American way, that isn't really accepted as the African culture.
"They didn't really support what I was doing. Females don't really get into a lot of sports."
Fofanah had found she had talent in track and field and her success included competition for national youth teams in Canada, where she became a naturalized citizen.
She ran the 200 meters for Team Canada in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore and the 2012 World Juniors in Barcelona. A gold medalist, she competed in the Western Summer games in the 4x100-meter relay and the 100 meters. She also was a qualifier for the 2013 World University Games in Russia and a Canada Summer Games gold medalist in the 100 meters.
"I think the 200 is my best event," Fofanah said. "I think it's because my starts in the one (100), or anything shorter, they're not that good, where in the two (200) you can generally start off slow, because you have time to fix your mistake.
"In the one or the 60, if you don't have a fast start, there's no time to change anything to compensate."
However, Yentes believes Fofanah's best chance to advance to the NCAA Finals from June 10-13 in Eugene, Ore., are in her other race. Twelve athletes in each of Fofanah's events move on from two rounds in Jacksonville and the NCAA West Preliminary in Austin, Texas.
"I think she has a real honest chance to make it in the 100," said Yentes, who is finishing his second Marshall track and field season on Coach Jeff Small's staff. "In the 200, she'd need to make a significant improvement, but it's not out of the realm of possibility.
"A lot of athletes at this time of the year, it's like, 'I'm done.' They have done what they can do. But `Ice,' she just seems to keep getting better and better -- and that's what you want when you reach this point."
She isn't worried about running in two sprints on the national stage, either.
"I don't think it's really hard doing two events because I don't really look at the one (100) as my event," Fofanah said. "I prefer the two, so I look at the one as kind of a warmup for my two. I don't really think about it.
"I'll go out and put the same effort into the one as the two, the 100 is just the race before the 200, and the two is my main event. So, hopefully it will warm me up for the 200."
Fofanah, an exercise science major, also owns two Marshall indoor records -- a 7.41 clocking in the 60 at the C-USA Championships in February in Birmingham, Ala., and a 24.08 in the 200 at the Akron Invitational earlier that month.
"For me, breaking records is great, but it's not what I've been about," Fofanah said. "I always told myself the reason I ran track before was intrinsic reasons. So, breaking a record isn't my goal, because I know that down the road, there are bigger things I'm aiming for. So, the records are great and I appreciate them, but it's just like a stepping stone for what I want to do."
And what's that?
"Olympics ... next year (in Rio de Janeiro)," the Herd star said. "I think I definitely have a shot. I can't compete for the United States because I'm not a U.S. citizen. I could compete for Canada because I'm a Canadian citizen, or (compete for) Sierra Leone (as a native of the country).
"Right now, I feel like Canada because I've already got my foot in the door because I've competed for Canada in the past. If I do go compete for Sierra Leone, I won't ever be able to compete for Canada again.
"I went to the World Juniors in Barcelona in 2012 and Youth Olympics in Singapore in 2010. I currently have made the Canadian team for the University Games, but there was an eligibility problem, so I decided to decline.
"If you accept, then you won't be eligible to make other teams through the summer, and I wanted to go to the (IAAF) Worlds in Beijing (Aug. 22-30), and the Pam Am Games are in Toronto this summer (July 10-26).
"So, if I go to the World University Games in South Korea (at Gwangju City, in July), then I wouldn't be able to compete in the others. And I'm so close to making standards for Canada's World team, so I told myself, `I'll take this risk.'"
Fofanah's landing in Huntington was unique for her. She said she had "never been in the East, other than once to Florida and on a recruiting trip to Ohio (Kent State)." Before she signed at Northern Arizona as a high school senior, she also considered Kent State and San Diego State.
The fleet Fofanah also said she's come to understand plenty about herself in the last year, after coping with her personal odyssey for so long.
"I guess, most of my life, I've always felt like I never had a family -- at least a blood family," Fofanah said when asked what she's learned in her nine months at Marshall. "And I think being here and everything I've experienced here, it's made me feel like `family' isn't really about being the same blood or someone giving birth to you.
"It's the people who take the time out of their day to check up on you, to make sure you do well, take care and support you in everything that you do, regardless of what you do, succeeding or failing. And for me, I think that's the biggest thing I've learned, and I've learned there are so many people out there who have supported me through this whole journey.
"I wouldn't be here on my own. And I owe them everything. I'll never be able to repay them, that's for sure. I just really appreciate everyone. I know sometimes I'm not the easiest person to deal with, but I know they stick it out because they love me and support me.
"The biggest thing for me -- what I realize now -- is they believe in me more than I believed in me before -- people in general, everyone who has supported me through this journey. They believed I could do this more than I did at the time, and it's just recently I'm beginning to realize I can do this and take this all the way."