Shola Olojo, Triple Jump, University of Memphis
Aside from nationals, the conference championship is the biggest team-scored meet on the collegiate track and field circuit. Even before stepping onto the track for the first day of Fall practice, it is a date, excuse me, THE date circled on every head coach's calendar and bookmarked by every athlete.
The University of Memphis is in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) along with Houston, Connecticut, Temple, Tulane, South Florida, Central Florida, East Carolina, SMU and Cincinnati. Each year, our conference championship meet pits together elite talent from each program with aspirations of capturing the ultimate prize, but even more important, securing bragging rights. Houston has dominated the AAC league since it's formation in 2014. Carl Lewis, one of the greatest athletes of all-time, holding a conversation with you in your living room is usually enough to lure any top high school prospect into the sprints and jumps stable of Houston.
Conference isn’t like your usual outing, it’s more like a business trip. You are expected to arrive at the bus dressed relatively smart. For us that meant wearing a Memphis team-issued polo coupled with some nice trousers and shoes. For our trip to Birmingham AL, the team left Thursday morning at 8am sharp. A pit-stop for lunch around 12pm, and straight to the team hotel. Once we were settled, a short trip to the stadium for a shake-out.
As I walked into the stadium, the enormity of the occasion hit me like a ton of bricks. It was somewhat reminiscent to that of a gladiator arena. Other schools started arriving and getting their pre-meet workouts in too. Every team was decked out from head-to-toe in their signature colours so it was easy to identify who was who. At that moment, you feel nothing but pride in your school colours. As a Memphis Tiger, I’d always throw on that fresh cut of blue and grey as if it were armour.
The atmosphere at the Birmingham Complex was thick with tension, you'd almost want to grab a knife in an attempt to slice through it all. Athletes measuring their run-ups, sprinters adjusting their blocks, some flying over hurdles. My attention, however, was drawn to the sandpit located at the far side of the complex. I ventured over just to get a feel of the surface. “It’s fast!” At this moment in time, various thoughts began to race through my mind. What's the atmosphere going to be like at 5:40pm tomorrow, when the Men's Long Jump final kicks off? Has Houston signed a gem that they've been keeping locked away all season?
My wistful thoughts were broken when I locked eyes with some opponents for a brief moment. Some of whom I was already familiar with, having competed against them the previous year. Nothing else followed but a stern nod in their direction.
After the pre-meet workout was completed, it was back to the hotel with the rest of the team. I left with somewhat of an unshakable satisfaction that the Conference Championship was finally here. It was time to put up or SHUT UP!
Day One – Men’s Long Jump. I scratched some huge jumps in my first two attempts. And found myself in the awkward situation of having to get a “safe” jump in that also needed to be far enough to qualify for the finals. Somewhat of a paradox. 6.92 metres - I finished 11th and did not make it through to the finals. Not the best of starts, considering I had picked up the silver medal last year.
Day Two - Men's Triple Jump. The shackles were off now! This was different as I was coming in seeded no.1. I couldn’t afford to drop the ball on this one. Sure enough after a rather tentative opening round, I caught a jump in the second round - 15.40 metres. Now the whole field was under pressure and they began to press. The rounds kept on ticking over, but still no response. UConn had thrown a potential big one in the final round but it was a foul. I did it! I finally realised one of my dreams ever since making that trip across the pond: CONFERENCE CHAMPION.
Man, that still feels good to say.
The trip back to Memphis was like a movie. Overall the team had finished 4th, which wasn't bad considering we had some of our big players missing. Nonetheless, we were going to celebrate what had been a rather long indoor season – party at the “Track Shack”! I was greeted with a warm embrace by some members of the other University of Memphis teams; women's volleyball, men's and women's soccer and tennis. There was so much going on that I just needed to take a step outside to soak it all in.
A brief moment of calm.
At the back of my mind however, I’d already started plotting about how I was going to do it all over again. The outdoor season was just around the corner and this crazy ride was only going to get better.