Racing in Rio

When recent graduate and first-time Olympian Alex Amankwah moved to the United State as an eight-year-old, he said that he expected to see futuristic marvels like flying cars and hoverboards. He had grown up in a poor part of Ghana, and his mother brought him to Los Angeles, California, so he and his family could have a better life. But in L.A., Amankwah didn’t find the high-tech fantasy he’d dreamed of. Instead, he found a poor neighborhood full of gangs and violence.

“For a while, I thought being in a gang and being tough was really cool,” Amankwah said. “I thought it was what I wanted. But then I went to high school and began playing sports—and I saw a new path for my life.”

That new path led Amankwah from the basketball court to the track, where he smashed a UA school record, became a first-team All American, qualified for the world championships, and, most recently, competed at the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“When I was in high school, I actually thought track was for losers,” Amankwah said. “To me, it was the sport people did when they couldn’t play basketball, soccer, or football.”

But after his high school basketball coach encouraged him to join the track team, Amankwah realized that he was fast. Really fast. He learned to love the gasps of fans seeing him break records, and he loved seeing how hard work could push him to be a little fast each year.

Within three years of his first race, Amankwah was the fastest 800-meter runner in California. He went to junior college and then transferred to The University of Alabama, where he simultaneously shattered the school’s 11-year-old record and became Ghana’s fastest ever 800-meter indoor runner.

“The 800 is a special race because you need speed and endurance,” Amankwah said. “And it is often hard to get those two in sync.”

Consequently, Amankwah trains in both long distance running and in sprinting—putting in more than 40 miles each week. Still, when the Olympic trials opened May 1, 2015, Amankwah wasn’t ready.

He had 422 days to meet the qualifying time for the 800-meter dash, which was 1:46.00. But he’d never gone that fast before. Thinking that his qualifying run was still months away, Amankwah was surprised when only a day after the trials opened, he ran a personal best of 1:45.91 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

He had made it. And when he got the call from Ghana that he was on the team, he was overjoyed.

“If had run that time even two days before, it never would have counted, “Amankwah said. “I was so lucky.”

In the time between the Olympic trials and the Olympics, however, Amankwah’s luck hit a dry spell. He fractured his fibula just three months before the Rio games, and as a result he wasn’t able to run for a month. He substituted his regular workout routine for biking exercises, but his muscles atrophied, and when he arrived in Rio, his fibula was still fractured.

He still ran, but he wasn’t pleased with his time. In the first qualifying heat, he was eliminated with a time of 1:50.33. Following the race, Amankwah went to the doctor and finally rested his leg, putting it in a boot and giving it time to heal properly.

“Going to the Olympics, I knew it was going to be a stretch for me to do well,” Amankwah said. “But I will be back, and next time I am going to redeem myself because I believe I am one of the top athletes in the world.”

Between now and the next Olympics, Amankwah is going to train harder than ever before, but he says he also wants to put his psychology degree to good use.

“I want to start a program where I can counsel kids in poor communities,” Amankwah said. “If it weren’t for my involvement in athletics, I would still be interested in gangs and believe that getting a high school diploma was good enough. I want kids in poor communities to know that they can dream big dreams and that those dreams can come true—like mine did.”