The only sprinter at Columbia University to qualify for the NCAA championship in June is Akua Obeng-Akrofi, a graduating senior. She is a three-time Ivy League champion. But will that be enough for her to make the boards at the NCAA event? Her coaches think so, and Obeng-Akrofi is focused. She knows that this is her moment.
Obeng-Akrofi, 21, is an African American young lady with a gritty personality, confident yet humble. Born in Ghana, she was very young when her family immigrated to Lawrenceville, Georgia.
In April, Obeng-Akrofi went to Queensland, Australia to represent Ghana in the Commonwealth Games. In the first round, she clocked 52.44 in the 400-meter preliminary—respectable. She came back in the semifinals and ran the 400-meter in 53.1. That time did not qualify her for the finals, though she was close. (The winning time was 50.15.) Obeng-Akrofi also participated in the Rio Olympics on the Ghanaian team for the four x 100-meter relay as an alternate. It was a high honor: The Ghanaian team was ranked 15th in the world heading to the Olympics.
In 2016, Obeng-Akrofi ran in the Penn Relays as a member of the Columbia team in the four x 100 relay and sprint medley team. One day after participating in those races, Obeng-Akrofi represented Ghana in the 2016 African Athletics Championship in the 400-meter dash—and qualified for the semifinals.
And Obeng-Akrofi had an amazing season with Columbia University’s Track and Field team. She qualified for the NCAA East Preliminary in the 400-meter dash. There she became the third Columbia Track and Field athlete to finish under 54 seconds, posting the second fastest time in the school’s history, at 53.14.
For this season, she has her sights on being a First Team All American.
The NCAA—National Collegiate Athletic Association—is the governing body that legislates all of sports competitions among collegiate schools, organizing the tournaments, rules, and scholarships. Its annual track and field championship event works this way: the Division One Men’s and Women’s Track and Field East Preliminary, the first round of competition, will be in Tampa, Florida in May. Only 48 runners will be able to compete. After three days of competition, NCAA will pair every event down to 12 runners from the East Region and 12 runners for the West Region. Those 24 runners will compete in Eugene, Oregon in June. Every person that makes it to the NCAA’s is an All American, and where the runner finisheswill determine if they are an Honorable All American, Second Team All American, or First Team All American. First Team All American is the top eight runners, Second Team All American scores range from nine to 16, and Honorable Mention Team scores range from 17 to 24.
“Based on the time that Akua ran this year if she can duplicate that time, it should qualify her for the finals in Eugene, Oregon,” said Daniel Ireland, head coach of Columbia’s Track and Field team. “It has been a long time since we had someone qualify for the finals.” (The last person to do so for Columbia was Sharay Hale in 2010.)
Obeng-Akrofi has qualified for the NCAA Regionals for the last three years, but not for the championship event. So she knows the importance of the chance. “My main focus is just running fast and making sure that everything is together that I have been doing in the season, so that I can go to nationals,” Obeng-Akrofi said, “Because I want to place on the podium at nationals.”
Obeng-Akrofi believes this is the moment she has been waiting for.”My preparation for the NCAA Championship is to do what I have been doing. Which is giving my all during practice. Because you compete how you practice, right? So every day when I come to the track to practice, I make sure that I am putting my best foot forward.
“I don’t allow the background noise to get to how I am in practice,” she continued. “But really focusing in, doing what I need to do and trusting the process and the journey that I have taken will be enough to help me to compete.”
Marquise Stancil is the assistant coach for the athletes who perform in sprint, hurdle, and relay competitions. In January 2016, Obeng-Akrofi’s told Stancil that she wanted to run the 400-meter dash. But when Akua first started running the 400-meter, he said, she did not have the strength and endurance she needed to successfully compete.
“Over the past couple of years, we have gotten her a lot stronger,” Stancil said. “Based on her performance, she is well ahead of where she was on last year at the NCAA’s first rounds. I think her chances are very good to advances to the NCAA’s finals.”
Last year Obeng-Akrofi finished two spots out—26th place—but she needed to be in the top 24 to qualify for the NCAA Championship. But this year she is going into the NCAA’s as one of the 10 top runners in the east region.
Stancil thinks the most difficult challenge in running the 400-meter is the athlete’s state of mind. “I think that she can be a First Team All American. She has what it takes. We train hard,” Stancil said. “When we go out there and step on the track the one thing that we want to say is that we worked harder than everyone else that is out there. She always—99.9 percent of the time—when the competition is higher she responds very well.”
Obeng-Akrofi works out every day with Stancil, and he coached her through two 300-meter runs twice a day in preparation for the NCAA Championship.
Ireland thinks she is ready for the championship races: “She always runs her best races at the end of the season,” he said. “Obviously, this year is different because the seniors are dealing with graduation and there is a lot of emotion that they are dealing with for the next two to three weeks, with all of the stuff that they have to deal with. So it’s a lot to manage and to stay focused on their running.
“As long as Akua stays on top of her stuff and manages things,” he said, “she should easily run her best races in May, and that should go well for in June for the NCAA’s.”