Mohammed Ahmed still remembers etching “Olympian” under future occupation in the yearbook as an eighth-grader in Canada. Seven years later, that prediction has turned into reality for the Wisconsin cross country and track and field athlete who just finished his junior year.
Clocking a time of 27 minutes, 34 seconds at April’s Payton Jordan Invitational in the 10,000-meter race, Ahmed shocked himself by handily beating the men’s Olympic A qualifying standard of 27:45. After winning the Canadian Olympic track and field trials in late June, the 21-year-old officially booked his ticket to London.
“Very surreal,” Ahmed said of his pre-Olympic experience. “But I pretty much told myself, ‘You have to make this one,’ because this would really help me set my career after I’m done with the collegiate career at Wisconsin.”
A four-time All-American with the Badgers, he earned the Big Ten 10,000-meter crown in 2010. But even the top NCAA competitions pale in comparison to the grandest stage in all of sports, one Ahmed will step onto Aug. 4.
It’s also a landmark achievement for his coach at Wisconsin, Mick Byrne, who in 29 years had never coached an Olympian. Ahmed was an accomplished runner at the junior level, but as his coach noted, such success does not always translate to the collegiate level.
Born in war-torn Somalia, Ahmed spent the first ten years of life in neighboring countries like Ethiopia and Kenya. Byrne said his life experience allows his star pupil to understand the magnitude of the Olympics.
“To see his growth as a young man and his personality, his maturity is incredible,” Byrne said. “He has a great ability to distinguish between what’s important and what isn’t important in his life as he pursues his academic and athletic goals.”
While he will have a red and white Canada jersey draped over his frame in London, Ahmed says he will carry many identities, that of Somalia, America – his home for the last 11 years – and his Muslim roots.
The 10,00-meter race is widely considered one of the most grueling Olympics events, the longest event run on the hallowed grounds of London’s Olympic Stadium. The race is tremendously taxing, even on those who have undergone years of intensive training.
“Your body, your leg or your hand, something is going to give up on you,” Ahmed explained. “You just have to talk yourself through it and the pain and all the unexpected things and hurdles that come with the race.”
Hours before he is set to line up alongside the world’s best runners, many of whom he has idolized for years, Ahmed says the nervousness will set in. It’s then that he will envision the biggest race of his life as just another NCAA competition, no different than the many he has run for Wisconsin.
Ahmed’s April qualifying time is more than a minute slower than the world record Kenenisa Bekele – the defending 10,000-meter Olympic champion – owns. But after making it this far, don’t count him out.
“I could be destined to have this gold, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just going out there to enjoy it and not put any pressures on myself.”
Twins carry cardinal and white to men’s rowing
Returning to Madison with a national title in 2008 is one of the most gratifying experiences in a boat for rowers Grant and Ross James, but one achievement would surpass the feeling – standing atop the Olympic podium.
The James brothers, twins who grew up in DeKalb, Ill., and rowed under the Wisconsin banner from 2005-2009, each earned a spot on the U.S. eight-man boat that will glide across London’s Dorney Lake. The 24-year-old duo walked on at Wisconsin and seven years later find themselves at the sport’s highest level, the first heats set for July 28.
“As soon as we started rowing … it really became a deal where you could try to outperform your brother,” Grant, who earned a degree in mechanical engineering in Dec. 2009, said. “When you have similar body types, a lot of it comes down to who just wanted it more, who was willing to [put in] the extra effort.”
Ross and Grant joined the Wisconsin rowing team on a whim, picked out by head coach Chris Clark at Summer Orientation Advisement and Registration because of their oar-friendly 6-foot-5 frames. Initially attracted by the opportunity to make friends in a new environment, they quickly scaled the rowing ladder and helped the under-23 national team take gold in 2008.
Ross, who graduated in 2010 with a degree in biological systems engineering, grabbed the final seat on the eight-man boat. His brother said he felt his spot on the team was more secure during tryouts and admitted it would be difficult to not have Ross in the boat with him.
But all eyes have turned to the podium in London.
“I’m sure once we get there the gravity of the situation, the grandeur of being at the Olympics will sink in a little bit,” Ross said from Princeton, N.J., where he and his brother were completing their final training before departing for London. “But at the same time it’s always for a purpose – we’re out there to not do anything but win an Olympic medal.”
The twins plan to pursue rowing for as long as they can, already thinking about a 2016 run in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Like Ahmed, the thought of getting a medal draped around their neck is too appealing to bury the James brothers’ dreams.
“Winning an Olympic gold medal is more of a life-changing thing; it really affects you for the rest of your life because you have that medal,” Grant said.