Akinniyi rekindles love for running with Southern Miss track team

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Ola Akinniyi participates in the Southern Miss Invitational. Photo by: Andrew Abadie

Southern Miss senior Ola Akinniyi has made the rare transition of becoming a two-sport athlete. Akinniyi has been on the Southern Miss soccer team for four years, but at end of her final season decided to take up her previous high school sport and joined the Southern Miss track and field team.

Joining the track team had been something Akinniyi wanted to do since coming to Southern Miss. However, since she was on scholarship for soccer, Southern Miss soccer Mohammed El-Zare wanted Akinniyi to focus on soccer.

“Since freshman year I wanted to run track but [Coach El-Zare] wanted me to focus on soccer and get better for fall and be better prepared,” Akinniyi said. “I played three sports when I was in high school and track was one of them and so was soccer so I didn’t think it be any different.”

That focus on soccer paid off, as Akinniyi had one of the most successful soccer careers in Southern Miss history. In her junior year, she was the first Golden Eagle to be named to the All-Conference USA first team since 2007. In her senior year, Akinniyi again was named to the All C-USA first team and helped lead the soccer program to its first ever appearance in the C-USA championship game.

In high school, she ran in the open 400m race, the 4X200 relay, the 4X400 relay, high jump, long jump and triple jump. Akinniyi took was part of two relay teams that competed in the state finals. In the 4X200, her team finished second and her 4X400 team finished in eighth place. In addition, her personal best time in the 400m open race of 58.46 ranks as fastest time in her high school’s history.

Still, just after soccer season ended, Akinniyi was still just playing with the notion of running track, but after much encouragement she decided to give it a shot.

“Our old Athletic Director [Jon Gilbert] and Caroline Bevillard, [the former Associate Athletic Director for Development] they were always telling Jon ‘oh yeah you should see this one girl on the soccer team. She’s pretty fast,” Akinniyi said. “So many people kept saying [you should run track] and I was just like, why not? What could go wrong?”

She approached Southern Miss head track coach Jon Stuart, who was open to giving her the opportunity.

“She had run some good 400s as a high school athlete and we know she had been in some pretty good shape playing soccer,” Stuart said. “I’m always happy to have a two-sport athlete. Anyone that can help us is a benefit to us. Usually it happens in football but rarely in soccer, but I’m appreciative from any kind of help from any other teams.”

However, the first day of track practice was a difficult experience, and as Akinniyi explained, she learned the difference between soccer shape and track shape.

“Hard,” Akinniyi said when describing her first track workout. “Really hard. There’s soccer shape and there’s track shape and they are really different things.  So day one track I had to run six 120m [reps]. Coach Jon ended up letting me just run five which thank the Lord that was the best present ever because, not going to lie, after the third one my vision was going kind of blurry because I was running them full out.”

Stuart talked about Akinniyi’s workout regimen.

“We tried to start off her easy too but exercise is very specific to each sport where you can be in great soccer shape but bad track shape and vice versa,” Stuart said. “She’s done really well; she handles workouts just fine and she’s getting better every day and getting better is a slow process. It doesn’t happen overnight, sometimes it takes several weeks and sometimes months, but she’s doing a great job for us right now.”

Another difficult aspect for Akinniyi is dealing with her heavy class schedule as an architectural engineering major. She’s not always able to make track practice but fulfills her duty by doing the workouts either on her own or compensates with weight lifting as well as running on her own.

“It’s tough because she has a really tough schedule and in her senior year,” Stuart said. “She has a tough, tough schedule that makes it really hard for her to get to practice on some days. It’s always a challenge for the whole track team, much less one athlete that is in architecture. I’m just going to take whatever effort she can give me right now so that she can maintain her GPA and have fun with this.”

So far, Akinniyi has competed in the 400m where her season best in a 59.29 and has run a season-best in the 200m dash with a time of 26.37.

“I’m just hoping she can get to a point and be competitive in our conference possibly score a point by making a final or running on a relay that’ll score some points for us in the conference championships.”

Akinniyi has been accepted into Miami University’s graduate school program for architecture. Whether she will compete at Miami University as a track athlete seems unlikely, but her goal for her senior season at Southern Miss is simple, and that is to break her high school personal best and run a time of 57 in the 400m race.

“I just wanted to her have fun with this as she develops as an athlete,” Stuart said “[And] by the end of the year she’ll get in good enough condition and be fit enough and be in track shape to help us maybe on a relay and possibly in the open 400m race.”