A few years ago, I was walking through a terminal in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport when a man passing by pointed at the purple and white monogrammed shirt I was wearing.
“ACU. Great track teams,” he said. As quick as I could turn around, he disappeared into the crowd. The words still resonate, and I wonder about them from time to time. Was he just a knowledgeable sports fan? An alumnus? The father of a student to whom we mailed enrollment marketing materials? At the very least, he associated the university with its accomplished track and field program, something many people around the globe have done for decades.
Wildcat head track and field coach Roosevelt Lofton was in Trinidad and Tobago last summer when a man walked up to him. “I had an ACU hat on and he asked me if I was from the university,” Lofton said. “He went on to tell me about a popular track club in the country called ‘Abilene Wildcats,’ and I was shocked. But we have a rich tradition there with people like Ian Morris (’91), Julieon Raeburn (’03), Nic Alexander (’03) and Wanda Hutson (’10), who have been Olympians. As an ACU coach, I know we have a very recognizable voice around the world because of our educational reputation and our track and field record. It’s powerful and a legacy we encourage all of our graduates to talk about wherever they go.”
Wes Kittley (’81) has been head track and field coach at Texas Tech University for 13 years but knows well the reputation ACU has around the world. The Wildcat teams he coached from 1985-99 won 29 NCAA Division II national team championships, many of them powered, in part, by student-athletes from other nations.
“When I was a coach at ACU, I felt the greatest advantage we had – and still have – was the university itself,” Kittley said. “International student-athletes face obstacles while transitioning to life in America and at ACU: culture shock, cultural differences, academic adjustment, homesickness, and overall contentment. I am proud to say without hesitation that ACU does the best job of helping student-athletes adjust of any place I know. The spiritual, academic, social, personal and institutional attachment that is created when one steps on campus is second to none. I believe when they leave ACU they know who they are, what they believe, and how to walk in life. This only happens because of the emphasis put on one-to-one relationships. It is ACU’s secret of success.”
“I have been coaching a long time, and at Division I universities (Grambling and Virginia Tech) and know that’s true,” Lofton said. “ACU does a very good job of getting international student-athletes acclimated, and the Christian aspect of the university has a lot to do with it. When I’m visiting with a family and talk about our values, it’s not unusual for the young person’s mother to say, ‘That’s where they need to go.’ ”
Former ACU head coach Freddie Williams (’87), a four-time national champion in the 800 meters and captain of the 1992 Canadian Olympic track and field team, said his decision to attend ACU was sealed when a missionary in South Africa gave him a 1957 copy of 20th Century Christian magazine. It was more than two decades old, but on the cover was a photo of Bobby Morrow (’58) and inside, a story about him winning three gold medals at the Olympics in Melbourne in 1956.
Jon Murray, assistant track coach and head cross country coach at Texas Tech for eight years, was previously the head coach for Wildcat teams that won 11 national titles. He believes ACU’s mission helps attract international student-athletes to Abilene.
“The size of the university, along with its Christian values, made it easy for a coach to sell the track and field program internationally,” Murray said. “An athlete’s opportunity to study and run in the U.S. also is a big motivation.”
Kittley, who competed as a Wildcat from 1977-81, said the talent pipelines created through the years by ACU alumni, friends and fans have been important to the program’s success.
“Recruiting at ACU with the international student-athletes and the success we have enjoyed over the years is amazing,” he said. “We brought kids here and cared for them, developed their talents, and, in turn, they helped us by recruiting on a friend-to-friend basis.
“Once you recruit a couple of student-athletes from a country, they help sell your program back home. You can see the thread of people from the same country coming to ACU over several years,” Kittley said. “We would always start with stories of Bobby Morrow and Earl Young (’62) and then talk about what the program had done lately. We explained to a prospective student-athlete how they could be the best athletically, academically and spiritually while attending ACU. And having a winning program makes it that much easier to sell the idea.”
Kittley recalls having recruiting Kenyan distance runner Joseph Tengelei (’97) from South Plains College. “A young man at Blinn College – who was the best 800-meter runner in junior college – heard about me recruiting Joseph and decided he wanted to be at ACU also,” Kittley said. “That was Savieri Ngidhi (’95) from Zimbabwe, who came to ACU to be with another great runner, never lost an NCAA race during his two-year career, and competed in the 1996 Olympics.”
Lofton will be watching the 2012 Olympics in London with heightened interest, as two of his new recruits will be members of women’s 4×100 relay teams for France, and Trinidad and Tobago. Elea Mariama Diarra ran on the French relay team last year in the world championships. Reyare Thomas was the 2012 NJCAA 100-meter dash national champion for Iowa Central Community College. Their competition begins Aug. 9, and Lofton expects both to feel at home when they arrive in Abilene.
“Karla Hope is from Trinidad and Tobago, and she knows Reyare,” he said. “We will have three other student-athletes from France on our team this year – Chloe Susset, Amanda Ouedraogo and Baptiste Kerjean. We have a network of people in France who work with athletes and recommend them to us when they think there is a good fit.”
Thirty of ACU’s 37 Olympians in track and field were international student-athletes (in parentheses are the years they competed in the Olympic Games):
- Antigua and Barbuda – James Browne (1988)
- Bahamas – Joseph Styles (1996)
- Barbados – Yolande Straughn (1988), Prisca Phillip (1988)
- Bermuda – Sonya Smith (1984)
- Botswana – Joe Ramotshabi (1984)
- Canada – Freddie Williams (1992)
- Dominica – Hermin Joseph (1996)
- Egypt – Ahmed Shata (1988)
- Guatemala – Jose Meneses (2000), Oscar Meneses (2000)
- Ivory Coast – Louise Ayotetche (2000)
- Jamaica – Albert Lawrence (1980, 1984), Greg Meghoo (1984, 1988), Ian Morris (1988), Tracey Barnes (1996), Delloreen Ennis-London (2000, 2004, 2008), Richard Phillips (2008)
- Liberia – Sayon Cooper (1996, 2000), Andrew Reyes (2000)
- Namibia – Christie VanWyk (2004)
- Nigeria – Mary Tombiri-Shirey (1996)
- Saint Vincent – Bigna Samuel (1988)
- Trinidad and Tobago – Ian Morris (1988, 1992), Julieon Raeburn (2000), Nic Alexander (2000, 2004), Robert Guy (1996), Wanda Hutson (2004, 2008)
- Ukraine – Andy Kokhanovsky (1996)
- Zimbabwe – Savieri Ngidhi (1996)
Other posts in this series:
- Olympic Diary: ACU’s ‘Texas Sports Dynasty’
- Olympic Diary: Morrow put ACU on the map
- Olympic Diary: Earl Young won gold in Rome
- Olympic Diary: The wide world of ACU sports
- 10 Questions with track guru Garner Roberts
- Olympic Diary: Ramsey covers the Games
- Olympic Diary: Politics and sport often mix
- 10 Questions with Delloreen Ennis-London