Updated on Aug. 18th at 10:33 a.m.
Rising junior Akua Obeng-Akrofi may not yet be a familiar name on campus, but come Thursday morning in Rio de Janeiro, that will likely no longer be the case.
Obeng-Akrofi will represent Ghana in the Summer Games, as one of five sprinters looking to compete on her native country’s 4x100-meter relay team. But with only four spots available, there is no guarantee that Obeng-Akrofi will actually race in the Olympics—though that’s hardly seemed to dampen her mood.
“Even to this day, it still feels unreal,” the junior said, after learning that she had been chosen for the Olympic team. “The closer it gets, the more exciting it gets.”
The two heats get underway on Thursday, with the top eight teams advancing to the final on Friday.
Ghana is seeded last among the 16 nations, and will take on top-ranked Jamaica. With recently crowned 100-meter gold medalist Elaine Thompson and bronze medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in tow, they enter the heat with an IAAF World Championship-winning time of 41.07.
Meanwhile, none of Ghana’s five runners—Gemma Acheampong, Beatrice Gyaman, Dorcas Gyimah, Persis William-Mensah, and Obeng-Akrofi—has run ever faster than 11.57 seconds.
If Obeng-Akrofi is one of the four selected to compete, she’ll run the third leg—the second curve—of the relay.
“The shorter athletes run the curve, so I think that went into Ghana choosing Akua for the third leg,” sprinting coach Marquise Stancil said. “She’ll be able to attack the turn more rapidly.”
The relay team represents five of 11 total athletes at the Games from Ghana, which has often looked to colleges throughout the United States for future Olympians.
“There’s much greater opportunity [in the United States] ... But I feel like it’s very important to go back to your roots,” Obeng-Akrofi said.
Obeng-Akrofi grew up in the United States, but was born in Ghana and felt drawn to her home nation this past spring. Ghana has long held ties with the Columbia track and field program through Nadia Eke, CC ’15. During her four years in Morningside Heights, the Ghana native became the school and Ivy League record-holder in the triple jump.
Team Ghana approached Obeng-Akrofi in late April, and invited her to run on its 4x100-meter relay team at the Penn Relays. She then raced with her fellow countrywomen during the early summer months, acclimating to a new level of competition.
“It was better to have more [pressure] to help me build my mindset when it comes to competing against people, and that fear that comes with competition,” she said.
That thirst for racing truly began during her sophomore year of high school in Georgia, as Obeng-Akrofi competed primarily in the 100- and 200-meter races. By her senior year, she had reached the state meet, and with recruiters on hand, Obeng-Akrofi notched a fourth-place finish in the 100-meters and fifth in the 200-meters.
She eventually opted for Morningside Heights, and later set foot on campus in the fall of 2014 following a stellar summer. Obeng-Akrofi was running faster than she ever had before, breaking the 24-second mark in the 200-meters, and finding consistency below 12-seconds in the 100-meters.
Those improvements led to a regular spot on the Light Blue’s sprint relay teams, and almost immediately, Obeng-Akrofi made an impression. She earned fifth place in the 200-meters at both the indoor and outdoor Ivy League Championships. The Ghanaian also notched fifth in the indoor 60-meters and sixth in the outdoor 100-meters, finishing the year with two Hepstrack Rookie of the Week awards along with All-East honors in the indoor 200-meters.
But despite all of her success, Ireland and Stancil thought that Obeng-Akrofi’s best race would be the 400-meters. A longer and more strategic race, they believed, would benefit the then-sophomore, who had only competed in the 4x400-meter relay at that point.
“She’s a strong young lady, physically and mentally. Those two combined [makes it] a no brainer,” Stancil said, of moving her up to the one-lap race.
Obeng-Akrofi raced in just three 400-meter races before the outdoor Ivy League Championships this past spring, but she still managed to place third with a time of 54:27. She then advanced to the IC4A/ECAC Championships, and promptly ran a personal best 53:95 in the preliminaries. Obeng-Akrofi added a second-place finish in the finals, propelling her to a spot in the NCAA East Preliminary Round—one step below the NCAA Championships.
It was there, in Jacksonville, FL, where Obeng-Akrofi recorded the second-fastest time in Columbia history—a 53:14 in the first round.
“She ran her best when the best is next to her, and I think that’s going to continue,” Ireland said of her performance in Florida. “She finds a way to get it done when there’s a lot more at stake.”
That mentality could prove decisive on Thursday morning if she’s chosen to take the Olympic Stadium track. And while that’s still far from certain, her impact has already been felt inside the Columbia Gates, with Obeng-Akrofi becoming the program’s first current runner to compete at the Olympics in recent memory.
“Akua wasn’t obsessed with becoming an Olympian, she was obsessed with getting better,” Ireland said. “She just thought: work hard, stay healthy, keep listening to coach, do the right thing. It wasn’t just luck that she got this opportunity. She made it happen.”
The first round of the women’s 4x100-meter relay will be held Thursday at 10:20 a.m. and streamed live on nbcolympics.com. The final is slated for Friday at 9:15 p.m.