Aug. 3, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
• Athletics Canada Bio | Photos: Mohammed Ahmed
MADISON, Wis. -- Mohammed Ahmed, then a 19-year-old University of Wisconsin freshman from St. Catharines, Ontario, was still riding the momentum of a fourth-place finish in the 10,000 meters at the 2010 NCAA Outdoor Championships when he reported to Team Canada for the world junior championships.
A month earlier, Ahmed had broken a Canadian junior record that had stood for 33 years with his then-personal best time of 28 minutes, 57.44 seconds in the 10,000 meters.
But he was on a different Olympic “clock’’ despite the enormous promise that he had shown while achieving All-America status running track and cross country for the Badgers. Canadian officials were in no hurry to accelerate Ahmed’s development; a plan that had been conceived for almost all of the 60 junior athletes (19-and-under) who had gathered in Moncton, New Brunswick.
“A lot of the high-ups, the officials, were there,’’ said Ahmed, who was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and moved to Canada when he was 11. “They told us constantly at every meeting, ‘You guys are 2016 (Olympic) hopefuls.’ At every one of those meetings I was telling myself, ‘No, I don’t want to wait another four years. I want to make the next one (2012 in London).’ This has been my biggest dream.’’’
Ahmed was not surprised when he pushed up the timetable and made the 2012 Canadian team. His UW mentor, Mick Byrne, wasn’t surprised, either, after charting his progress as a junior runner.
“You always hope and pray that, at the next level,’’ Byrne said, “he’s going to be competing on the big stage and when that comes to fruition, it’s fantastic. Obviously, the pinnacle is the Olympic Games.’’
From a competitive standpoint, the wait is nearly over for Ahmed, who will race Saturday in the 10K at Olympic Stadium. “We’ll see ‘Canada’ on his chest,’’ Byrne said, “but I’ll see the ‘W.’’’
He will also see an underdog in the context of the world field. “I don’t see any reason why he can’t get in there and give it a real good shot,’’ said Byrne, who made the trip to London. “I expect to see a lot of surging, up and down pacing, which destroys a lot of people. He doesn’t do real well in a lot of that surging, but he’ll go race.
“He’s not afraid of the big names and he’s got absolutely nothing to lose.’’
Ahmed sees things pretty much the same way. “I’m an underdog -- nobody knows who I am -- so I’m just going out there to shock people I guess,’’ he said confidently before leaving Madison. “Anything is possible. Anything can happen. It’s an even field at the starting line. I could be destined to be the winner ... I don’t know ... I have no idea … but I’m not going to put any pressure on myself.’’
That approach meshes with Byrne’s game plan. “Coach is a big part of what I’ve done or what I’ve accomplished,’’ Ahmed said. “He’s pretty much the brains behind me, I’m just the machine.’’
The fine-tuning began months ago. “At the start of the year, it was the goal,’’ Byrne said of meeting the automatic qualifying standard for the London Olympics, which was 27:45 in the 10K. “That was a little daunting for a 21-year-old collegiate kid. There aren’t many collegians that can run that fast. We kind of prepared for it by going out to Stanford. It was like, ‘Get in there and see what you have.’’’
That was in late April at the prestigious Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational in Palo Alto, Calif. “To be honest as his coach,’’ Byrne said, “I’d have to say that 27:45 was a, ‘Wow, is this going to happen? Can it happen?’ I can honestly say now that I was looking at somewhere around 28:10. Just to see him run with some of the best distance guys on the collegiate level and some great pros was fantastic.’’
Ahmed went out and ran a personal-best 27:34.64 prompting Byrne’s saying, “There are no limits with Mo.” Even though he finished sixth in the race -- won by Cam Levins, a fellow Canadian and subsequently his Olympic training partner in Germany -- he easily achieved the “A’’ qualifying standard and broke a 36-year-old Big Ten record, the longest-standing mark in the conference’s record books. He also shattered the Badgers’ school record by almost 30 seconds.
Byrne feels Ahmed can duplicate his Stanford effort in London. “His greatest strength is his aerobic capacity,’’ he said. “He has the incredible ability to just run at an even pace for those 25 laps -- his tolerance for pain is incredible -- and in the middle of the race to kind of switch off and not think about, ‘What I’m banging out each lap’ and not get frustrated, not get upset or over-think it.’’
What’s his pre-race anticipation? Ahmed cited the Payton Jordan meet. “That was my biggest anticipation because I didn’t know what to expect and that was my biggest shot at getting to the Olympics,’’ he said. “That would be similar now. I’ve waited for this for a very long time -- ever since I started running, and improved, and started to realize that I could actually do this as a career.’’
|Watch Ahmed in London
The men's 10,000 meters is set for 3:15 p.m. (CT) Saturday at Olympic Stadium in London. NBC will have live coverage of the event, with a simulcast available online at NBCOlympics.com or via the NBC Olympics Live Extra app for iPhone, iPad or Android.
Ahmed has already made one tough personal decision before even stepping on the track. As a Muslim, he was faced with fasting during the holy month of Ramadan -- refraining from the consumption of food or liquids from dawn to sunset. Ahmed said that he has been fasting since he was 8 years old. After thorough deliberation, he will postpone his fasting until the conclusion of the Olympics.
From a local perspective, Ahmed shares one of the more intriguing storylines in the 10K with 30-year-old Matt Tegenkamp, a former UW All-American and the current U.S. record-holder in the two mile. Four years ago, Tegankamp, who trains with former Badgers cross country coach Jerry Schumacher in Oregon, was 13th in the 5K at the Beijing Olympics.
“I got to see him Stanford at the Payton Jordan and he said, ‘Good job,’’’ Ahmed recalled of his brief conversation with Tegenkamp. “I ran with him in April over spring break and he always e-mails me. Matt is somebody I’ve looked up to for a very long time.’’
The favorites in London’s 10K -- Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, a two-time defending Olympic champion and the world record-holder; and Great Britain’s Mo Farah -- are among Ahmed’s favorites, as well.
“I’ve looked up to him (Bekele) ever since I started running,’’ he said. “Mo Farah is also from Somalia. I have his phone number and he said call me anytime you want. I talk to him a little bit on Facebook.’’
Ahmed considers racing in their company “to be an honor.’’
In one breath, he said, “I’m going to be star-struck once they call us into the holding area.’’
In the next breath, he said, “They are just human beings, I realize that.’’
Ahmed had a flashback to 2008 and a world championships team in cross country.
“Bekele was there and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness,’’’ Ahmed remembered. “I was in the cafeteria and they were eating with us and I’m thinking, ‘These guys are human beings. They just train very hard and they’re dedicated to what they do, so maybe I can be like them one day.’’’
That day has arrived -- Ahmed, like Bekele, is an Olympian; Mick Byrne’s first.
“Every young kid dreams about representing their country in the Olympics,’’ Byrne said. “To be realistic, what you want out of Mohammed going forward into the Olympic Games is to go out and just absorb the whole experience and enjoy it. Down the road, if we spend the next 12 months in just getting stronger, he can go faster. He’s got to be given the opportunities and put in the races to go faster.’’
That will be the next stage, though Byrne acknowledged it’s hard right now to look too far ahead.
“What do we do when he comes back (to Wisconsin)?’’ he posed. “Is there a recovery process? Our (cross country) season starts right away, so do we redshirt him and get him ready for a year down the road? If we do that, it’s certainly going to affect our team.’’
Byrne recited the UW’s proud tradition and history of success in cross country, including last season’s NCAA championship.
“He (Ahmed) has a role to play in all of that,’’ he went on. “He has a role to play in the future of this team this year. But I’m going to look at this recovery process; I’m going to look at what’s best for him because, ultimately, what’s best for him is going to be best for the team.’’
First things first: London.
“I’m not going to be star-struck,’’ Ahmed promised. “ I will try to make it as normal as it can be. Yes, absolutely, you have to treat it as another race.’’
Even if it isn’t.