How a HBCU Track Team Made it to the Olympics

Over the past year, North Carolina A&T State University’s track team has been making history for their record breaking performances. The men and women’s team are the first Historically Black College and University (HBCU) to rank in the top 5 of the NCAA Division I Championships. The men’s 4x400m relay team held the fastest world time this year with a time of 3:00.23. 

Now, all but one member of the relay team is going to the 2021 Olympics, despite all four qualifying initially for the games. Trevor Stewart and Randolph Ross Jr. — son of A&T’s track coach and former Olmypian Duane Ross — are representing the United States, and Akeem Sirleaf will be representing his home country, Liberia. Daniel Stokes initially qualified for the 4x400m relay team for his mother’s home country of Mexico, but only the top 16 teams get to compete —  and Mexico came in at 18. Despite all odds, A&T has proven itself to be a mecca of champions. “I’m elated for our athletes. They worked hard this year and it’s nice to see them be rewarded with those championship finishes,” says head coach Duane Ross. “An Olympian is what nearly every track athlete aspires to be. I’m honored to have helped these athletes reach that dream.”

Rolling Stone spoke to the four members of A&T’s 4x400m relay about life on the track, future dreams and even some of their favorite playlists. With a load of preparation required for the Olympics, including a 15-hour flight, reaching the athletes was a bit difficult. Between Zoom calls, texts and a noisy phone call with Stewart, who is already in Tokyo for the mixed relays taking place July 30th, here is an edited version of those conversations: 

Daniel, how did you feel when you received the news that despite qualifying originally, you weren’t going to the Olympics? 

Stokes: So, The Olympics only take the top 16 countries for the 4×400 relay. We [Mexico] were 16 but we dropped to 18 during the time of the NCAA Championships, because I wasn’t on the relay. Mexico called me to compete in the Bahamas with their 4×400 to get us into the top 16. We competed with several other countries to at least get a time of 3:02, which was the cut off for the top 16. We ran 3:02, but we didn’t run fast enough. Once I found out, after a few hours of being a little upset, I just had to accept it and let it go. With track and field, you have to be used to accepting things and letting them go because being so caught up can hinder your performance on the track. 

Akeem, what’s your story behind running for Liberia ? How did you qualify in the first place? 

Sirleaf: Originally, I was born in Africa, Liberia, and then I came to the States when I was five, and we moved to Philadelphia, and then my mom moved to Minnesota when I was in seventh grade. In 2016, after my freshman year in junior college, I qualified for the World Junior Trials in Clovis, California. I ran and competed and qualified to make Liberia’s team, but they disqualified me because they said I took too many steps on the line. I then got a call from Emmanuel Matadi, who is the captain of the Liberian team. He was like “We saw you, we saw your time and we saw that you’re Liberian. Would you consider running for Liberia?” I talked to my mom about it and she was like, “it would be a good opportunity for us to represent your native country and the family. But it’s what you want to do, we’ll support you no matter what.” [Then] I qualified for the 2020 Olympics in 2019 when I ran 45.4 in the 400m and then 20.3 in the 200m. 2019 was like my foot in the door, because prior to that, in 2018, I had to red shirt because I was coming from a Junior college and my credit didn’t transfer over. So, 2018 was just a learning process.

In 2019, you broke Liberia’s record with your 45.4 in the 400m and the 20.3 in the 200m. How did that feel? 

Sirleaf: To me, I feel like records are meant to be broken. Yes, you have the record now but you never know who is going to come and break it, so you just got to enjoy it while you can. 

Randolph, Your dad went to the 2004 Olympics and now you are in the 2021 Olympics. How does that legacy feel? 

Ross Jr. : It feels amazing and honestly it’s just a blessing being able to compete on that stage, just as he did. My dad set a pretty high standard, running in college and professionally and making the Olympics. Whenever I have kids, hopefully they go through the track program, it’ll be nice to say that me and your grandpa, along with your great aunt [on Randolph’s maternal side] were all able to compete in the Olympics. 

What does your playlist look like when you are warming up? Is there a certain playlist or song that puts you in the mood to run your race? 

Ross Jr. : My music is different everyday I compete. But if I had to pick an artist that would be most likely to pop up, it would be either J. Cole or Mac Miller. 

Stewart: It will be a lot of early 2000’s rock. But depending on the day it’ll be rock, hip hop and rap, it varies depending on how I feel. For rock, I listen to mostly Nirvana, my favorite song is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s definitely a warm up song. I had friends in college that all graduated before I did and pretty much they listened to a wide variety of music and they put me on to rock. 

Stokes: I listen to a lot of rap and R&B. I listen to rap warming up before races but I listen to R&B while waiting to warm up. My playlist consists of a lot of L.A. artists that most people don’t know but I got some G Herbo, Bino Rideaux, BlueBucks Clan, and Big Sad 1900.

Sirleaf: For my warm up lap, I like to listen to R&B, something slow to calm the heart rate. When I start doing my drills, that’s when I listen to Meek Mill and something to just get me right and get the blood flowing and have the energy. 

Daniel, your home state of California was the first to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. What is your opinion on Sha’Carri Richardson’s situation? Do you think weed should be tested as a part of athletes’ drug tests? 

Stokes: In my opinion, it was never that serious. I’m from L.A. where kids have been smoking since middle school and still became successful in anything they do. It’s legal, so I don’t see a problem with what she did. Weed shouldn’t even be on the banned list, it’s not performance enhancing at all. The track and field community needs to understand that the track world needs to change with the times. Many people don’t watch track because we are stuck in old ways from the rules to the actual meets. We want track to be on the level as MLB, NFL, and the NBA but the track committee is so old fashioned. The more we change with the times the better and more recognized track can be outside of the Olympics. 

Akeem, you had a slightly different opinion regarding Richardson. What is your opinion on the situation? 

Sirleaf: People have different ways of coping with a loss of a family member. Some people tend to look to drugs or drinking to get away. I feel like she should have had a better way to handle that situation instead of taking the easy way out and smoking. But if she would have had better company around her and people to protect her, she would have handled the situation differently and better. She’d still be running in the 100m for the U.S. instead of being disqualified. 

When do you run and how are you feeling leading up to it? 

Stewart: I run July 30th and the 31st and then again on August 7th and 8th. I’m feeling great. Just going to get some training and relax a little bit. I feel better than I did before I left. Before Tokyo, I was a little sluggish, a little stiff in certain areas and had a weird mindset going into it. But now that I’m actually here, I feel more relieved. 

Akeem, you are still in the states, when are you leaving for Tokyo ? 

Sirleaf: That’s the question I’m asking the coach. The 200m isn’t until later on in August, so I’m not really sure what dates I’ll be running. 

What event are you looking most forward to? 

Stewart: The 4×400 relay. I love all of my events, my event is just basically running a whole lap. So either way, if I’m on the track then I am happy. But I love the 400m because it’s just a lot of effort going into it and I have a whole history of running it. I first started running the 400m  in high school after they told me that I was too slow to run the 100m and the 200m, so they put me in distance and I didn’t have the lung capacity to run miles, so that’s when they put me in the 400m. My first race was disgusting, I ran a 0.51 but now I’m at 0.44 lows. My vision is to bring back two golds, in the mixed relay and in the 4x400m. 

Sirleaf: I’m running the 200m and 4x100m. I’m looking forward to any event that can get me on that podium. I’m excited because not many people get the opportunity to do this and run for a country, so for me to be selected to run for my country means a lot and I’m just excited to get out there and compete. 

What contributed to your time drop? 

Stewart: Mainly compassion. I always had people like my mother, grandparents, and certain friends from high school that were behind me. Knowing that they were always there and that they wanted me to be the best that I could possibly be helped me become a better person, not just on the track but off the track as well. I knew I had to hold myself accountable for certain things.

Akeem, your times have also improved from the time of junior college up until this point. What contributes to this? 

Sirleaf: My junior college coach helped me get to that point, and Coach Ross just elevated everything. He helped with my recovery, with how I attacked the race and how I went into the race being confident in myself. Being with Coach Ross is a blessing. If any kid is looking for a home, definitely contact Coach Ross because if you want to do this for a living he will help you get to that point. 

How do you think A&T has prepared you for this moment? 

Stewart: A&T pushed me to be the best that I can possibly be and now it’s to the point where I know what I’m capable of. Time and time again, I’ve been told ‘you don’t know what you’re capable of but I can see it in you.’ So now that I see it in myself, I know I can go as far as I possibly want to. 

Ross Jr. : It just shows that our athletes have a future beyond the collegiate level. Some people were shocked when we performed the way we did at nationals, but this just shows that talent can come from anywhere no matter how small the school is. 

Sirleaf: The point of every school is to prepare you for the next level in your life and the next chapter. A&T is like a family, everyone greets you and welcomes you with open arms and just supports you through it all. 

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