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.
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. Ofili’s father and uncles all ran track in college, too.
“She’d rather be at home than go to Michigan football games on Saturday,” said teammate Geena Gall, who’s roomed with Ofili all four years. “She doesn’t even buy season tickets or anything. She’ll only go to the games if we have a (track) recruit visiting.”
Ofili said she has nothing against sports — they just aren’t high on her list of priorities.
“If I had a choice between watching ‘House’ and watching a basketball game, I’d watch ‘House,’ ” she said.
That she enjoys the medical TV drama is no shocker, given her interest in medicine. After three years as an undergrad in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, Ofili applied to and gained admission from the College of Pharmacy last year. She’s currently finishing her first year in the program.
Pharmacy is among the four things — God, family and track being the other three — she considers most important. She cares about pharmacy so much that she plans to earn her degree in 2012, just months before that year’s Summer Olympics, in which Ofili hopes to compete.
Though striking that balance sounds nearly impossible, those closest to her say she’ll be able to accomplish both.
Ofili has derived some of her biggest loves from her parents. Her interest in education can be tied to her mom, who teaches first graders in Detroit. Her desire to go into medicine comes from her Nigerian father, who is a retired eye doctor.
The track star said her most-prized attribute — her faith in God — stems from her mother. Ofili attends Sunday church services every week, calling the routine something she “never compromises.”
She frequently discussed her faith with her mother, Lillian, after one of her teammates, Joi Smith, died from a quick-spreading cancer in Nov. 2007.
“That shook her up a lot,” Lillian said. “She talked about Joi a lot. I just told her to stay prayerful because you never know what may happen in life.”
Ofili heeded her mother’s advice. Shortly after her teammate’s death sophomore year, she made a vow to run each race like it was her last.
“Joi’s passing really made me dig deeper and explore what’s important in life,” Ofili said. “It’s really easy to get caught up in what’s happening every day and not appreciate things as much as you should. What happened with Joi made me look at things differently.”
MOVING BEYOND OBSCURITY
In the three years that have passed since Smith’s death, Ofili has become the nation’s top collegiate hurdler.
At times, using the word “dominant” to describe her performances would be an understatement. She’s reset her own records in the 60- and 100-meter hurdles 12 times (she shattered the 60-meter hurdles mark three times in a four-week span her sophomore year). Ofili claimed her first national title as a sophomore and has won her last four NCAA championship meets. She’ll be the hands-down favorite when she vies for a fifth consecutive hurdles crown in June.
But she’s still got more to prove. Her dominance alone hasn’t garnered the attention of the track community — let alone her classmates at Michigan — yet.
Asked why Ofili still competes in relative obscurity, Henry cited geography.
“If she were at a USC or a Texas, she would be on the covers of track magazines by now,” said Henry, adding that the lack of attention doesn’t bother Ofili. “Even most people in our athletic department don’t know about her.”
Ofili was close to changing all that last year. She narrowly missed qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trial Finals in the 100-meter hurdles, the competition that determines which American runners will go to the Olympics. The race, in which the top eight finishers advance, saw Ofili come up just shy of the final spot.
Her finish, .004 seconds behind the eighth-place finisher, was so close that officials had to calculate her time out to the thousandths (the process is almost always done by the hundredths). Only then did Ofili find out that she’d placed ninth and not eighth.
She called the process “bittersweet,” saying she was honored to run against the best in the world, but disappointed to finish so close without earning an invitation to the Olympics.
“It’s definitely motivation for the next time,” she said.
Because of her youth — she was the youngest of the top nine finishers — and her collegiate success, Ofili is expected to be a force to contend with in the 2012 Olympic Trials. In an effort to meet that expectation, she plans to continue training on campus with Henry after this year, much like former Michigan swimming coach Bob Bowman trained Michael Phelps before the 2008 Olympics. Ofili expects her regimen to stay consistent while she’s in pharmacy school.
“Not having the block ‘M’ on my chest will be the only difference,” she said.
That and the fact that people will know exactly who she is — at least if she accomplishes what her coach thinks she can.
“I think she’ll break the American record and then eventually break the world record someday,” Henry said. “When? I don’t know. But as long as she keeps the drive and fire that she has now, I think she will do it.”