Summer is generally a time for Wisconsin athletes to rest up and prepare for the challenges of the looming season. Football players put in long hours in front of the empty Camp Randall bleachers, envisioning the fall gamedays when it will be packed with more than 80,000 fans. Cross country runners spend hours circling the McClimon Complex track, imagining the feeling of once again standing atop the podium as national champions.
But Wisconsin running phenom Mohammed Ahmed has slightly bigger plans for summer. Ones that extend beyond such long, unheralded workouts. Like a trip to the 2012 London Olympics.
Finishing the 10,000 meters in a lightning-fast 27 minutes, 34 seconds Sunday at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational, Ahmed is a qualifying race away from taking the Motion “W” to the international stage. As conversation swarms over how Danny O’Brien will fit into UW’s pro-style offense or how Bo Ryan will fare without Jordan Taylor next year, Ahmed’s story is one that transcends the usual accomplishments of college athletes.
Though he must finish in the top three at the Olympic Trials in late June, if he manages a similar pace as he did Sunday in Calgary, Ahmed is all but guaranteed to be suiting up for Team Canada come July. The time he posted in Palo Alto, Calif., this weekend was sixth best in the world this year – quite a mark for a college junior to leave.
Rose Bowl appearances and Sweet 16 runs certainly bring prowess to their respective programs and help the Badgers branding reach the national stage, but the Olympics are an entirely different level of recognition and competition. They are the pinnacle of international sports, a global event that just happens to use the vehicle of sports to bring people from around the world together.
And while he won’t be donning a jersey with “USA” in bold letters across the front – Ahmed is a native Canadian – he nevertheless has the opportunity to draw attention not only to the university but also to Wisconsin’s storied history of producing world-class runners.
A powerhouse in the college cross country world, the Badgers boast a still-active streak of 13 straight Big Ten titles. Plenty of former Badgers have appeared to the Olympics before, and Ahmed may not even be the only member of the Canadian Olympic squad with ties to Madison. Simon Bairu, another Canadian distance runner, starred for the Wisconsin’s cross country squads in the mid-2000s. But what makes Ahmed’s potential Olympic appearance even more impressive is that he’s still a collegiate runner, skipping summer classes to perform on one of the most prominent stages in all of sports.
Ahmed, who races for both Wisconsin’s cross country team during the fall and the track team in the spring, still has to make it through the now underwhelming Big Ten and NCAA Outdoor Championships before his Olympic destiny is decided.
And the St. Catharines, Ontario, native was sharing the track with competition with a bit more skill and experience than he faces in a typical Big Ten meet. Despite running against a field loaded with professionals, the three-time All-American still managed a sixth place finish, more than a positive sign of his Olympic potential.
Think of Montee Ball playing in the Pro Bowl after finishing off his junior season and dominating Jared Allen and the rest of the NFL’s top defensive lineman for 150 yards and two touchdowns. All this while not yet a professional athlete. It’s an unrealistic situation, but it’s comparable to what Ahmed achieved at the Payton Jordan Invite – he landed in the top 10 while competing against some of the top stars in the 10,000 meters.
But the distance specialist is just the most recent example of the 93 former Wisconsin athletes who went on to make Olympic appearances. And, aside from a sizable collection of former men’s hockey players, they almost all come from sports outside of the ever-popular men’s basketball and football programs.
Most recently, at the 2010 Vancouver games, two women’s hockey players in Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan played for Team USA. In the past several weeks alone, two Wisconsin wrestlers chose to take an “Olympic redshirt” and just missed out on qualifying for the U.S. wrestling squad. But such major achievements, with Ahmed’s just the latest example, often get undeservedly brushed over in favor of the latest recruiting developments.
It would be naive to expect Badger fans to suddenly shift their attention from Montee Ball’s touchdown runs to less publicized sports like cross country, women’s hockey and rowing, but Ahmed and his fellow Olympians deserve trumpeting for their professional level accomplishments as Division I athletes. Athletes don’t simply earn Olympic spots without experiencing tremendous success at a previous level, a sign of both the historic strength of Wisconsin’s athletic program.
Such landmark performances – amateur athletes competing against the best competition in the world – deserve the more attention from the UW faithful.
So maybe, just maybe, it’s worth checking out Madison’s biggest stars who don’t call the Kohl Center or Camp Randall home. Whether it be on the cross country track or the wrestling mats, Ahmed proves that Wisconsin’s athletic success extends beyond the realm of events ESPN airs. You never know – they might one day be standing on the podium doing the cardinal and white proud with a gold medal draped around their neck.
Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Agree that Admed’s shot at the Olympics is a landmark achievement, or will you stick to football and basketball? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.