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Michigan's quiet record-breaker

BY CHRIS HERRING
Daily Sports Editor
Published April 19, 2009

It was the Friday before Easter and the Michigan women’s track and field team had just finished a grueling three-hour workout at the Indoor Track Building. The squad, feeling sore and looking forward to embracing the holiday weekend, filed out. But coach James Henry didn’t leave. Instead, he waited for his next appointment.

Jeremy Cho / Daily
Tiffany Ofili at the Len Paddock Invitational on Saturday, May 10, 2008 (JEREMY CHO / Daily).

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He killed time by stamping a stack of letters that needed to be mailed and then took a call from his wife, who wanted to know when he’d be home for dinner. It was already 5:15 p.m., she reminded him, and he should be getting home soon.

“I’m just waiting on Tiffany,” he told his wife, referring to senior Tiffany Ofili, Michigan’s All-Everything hurdler.

Ofili arrived half-past the hour after attending an event for the College of Pharmacy. Henry didn’t mind her tardiness.

“I would wait until 8 p.m. to work with her if I had to,” Henry said.

Such concessions can be made for Ofili, who will quietly leave the women's track program as the most prolific runner in its history and unarguably lay claim to one of the most decorated careers — in any sport, male or female — ever at Michigan.

HUNTING FOR A CHALLENGE

The main reason Henry has no problem with Ofili’s lateness is that she tends to have a hectic schedule as a pharmacy student. The other reason he’s OK with her coming later has to do with her performance on the track.

Henry said it’s human nature for an athlete to pace herself based on how other people are running, so it should come as no surprise that he likes Ofili to run alone.

“It’s like a car being on the highway,” he said. “If that car is around a bunch of other cars going 55, the fastest it will go is 60. But if Tiffany’s on the highway by herself, she can go about 80.”

Ofili’s motor has been running faster than anyone else’s for a while now. After arriving at Michigan in the fall of 2005, the freshman promptly broke school records in both the 60- and 100-meter hurdles. She currently holds the nation’s fastest collegiate time in the 100-meter hurdles (12.88) and hasn’t lost in her signature event, the high hurdles, in almost a year.

The Ypsilanti native has clocked such ridiculously fast times in her four-year career that Henry often has to come up with new ways to push her in practices.

When her pharmacy school schedule — 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays and 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays — allows her to practice with her teammates, Henry routinely puts his star athlete at a disadvantage. He recently started Ofili 10 meters behind one of her teammates in a 200-meter dash to challenge her. She still managed a tie.

Though her times have always set her apart — she first broke Michigan’s indoor and outdoor hurdles records as a freshman — the most noteworthy thing about Ofili's accomplishments is that they've come in the cold-weather state of Michigan.

Since 1982, when the hurdles became an official event for the women’s national championships, just Ofili and two others have won national titles for Midwestern schools. That Ofili has four championships is unheard of — in the Midwest or otherwise.

While she finds Michigan’s cold weather frustrating, Ofili never seriously considered competing in the South. Part of that had to do with limited recruitment from there. She also wanted to stay close to family and study pharmacy.

Ofili takes pride in breaking the stereotype that runners from the North can't run as fast as their southern counterparts.

“A lot of athletes think that just because they go to a certain school that has a certain name that they’ll automatically do well,” said Ofili, who had practiced inside that day because of April snow. “There’s more to it than that.”

NOT YOUR TYPICAL NATIONAL CHAMPION

The 21-year-old has a wide range of interests, most of which aren't tied to athletics. She seemingly controls her concern for sports like a light switch. If she, her teammates or her family aren’t involved in a sporting event, Ofili probably won’t take notice of it.

When one considers her family’s extensive sports history, it becomes a bit easier to understand.

Her brother Alex, now 26, played football at Michigan. Her oldest brother, Frank, now 27, played football at Toledo. Her 14-year-old sister Cindy, who Tiffany lovingly calls “Joobie Boodie,” is a high school freshman who plays basketball, volleyball and just began running track.


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