University employee heads to the Olympics

Ghanaian triple jumper and University of Miami employee Nadia Eke hopes to improve on her personal best of 14.33 meters and capture gold at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan. Photo: Diego Meza-Valdes/University of Miami
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Ghanaian triple jumper and University of Miami employee Nadia Eke hopes to improve on her personal best of 14.33 meters and capture gold at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan. Photo: Diego Meza-Valdes/University of Miami

University employee heads to the Olympics

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Nadia Eke’s Olympic dream is about to become reality. The University of Miami staff member will represent her home country of Ghana in the triple jump at the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.

OLYMPIA HEIGHTS/MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla.—The line of cars at the COVID-19 testing and vaccination site at Miami’s Tropical Park had started to lengthen, snaking its way past the signs that directed motorists to the drive-through location and then turning a corner that led to a highway jammed with traffic.

Standing on the park’s Olympic-sized track just a few dozen meters away, Nadia Eke seemed oblivious to it all, as she completed a series of tempo runs to loosen up her legs.

But while her attention may have been focused elsewhere, she was still well aware of what was occurring just a short distance away and why it was so critically important. Like the rest of the world, the Ghanaian athlete and University employee has mourned the millions of people who have died from the coronavirus during the past year and prayed for a quick end to the pandemic. 

“So many people have had their lives turned upside down, lost friends and loved ones, their jobs, their livelihoods,” said Eke, who assists the School of Law’s entertainment, arts, and sports law LL.M. program with its strategic initiatives. “For me, I’ve been fortunate that the only thing I’ve lost has been a year of not being able to train, a year of not competing.” 

Last year at about this time, the 28-year-old was making plans to compete in the triple jump for her home country of Ghana in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But with worldwide coronavirus cases and deaths skyrocketing, Japan and the International Olympic Committee agreed to put off the games until 2021, marking the first time that the multisport event had been postponed or canceled for something other than war. 

Eke’s dream didn’t die, however. Now, with the games scheduled to start July 23, she’ll get the chance to represent her country on the Olympic stage. 

She will be the flagbearer for Team Ghana at the opening ceremonies. And when competition in the women’s triple jump is held on July 30, Eke will be competing as much for young Ghanaian girls as she will be for herself. “It’ll be a moment bigger than me,” she explained. “It will be for all the girls back home in Ghana who dream of being more than what society tells them they can be.” 

Eke has taken an unusual path to triple jumping. 

She moved to the United States from Ghana with her family when she was 13. First she played guard on her high school’s basketball team; and then, on the advice of her sister, she joined the track and field squad. 

She decided to become a triple jumper because the team had none. “And I’ve always embraced a challenge,” Eke said. 

Only problem was, her coach knew nothing about the discipline. So, she started watching YouTube videos of some of the world’s greatest triple jumpers in action, going out to the track each day to perfect the technique. 

Triple jumpers sprint along a runway before taking off from a wooden board. The actual jump is much like the game of hopscotch, incorporating three distinct and continuous movements: a hop, in which the athlete takes off and lands on the same foot; a step, landing on the other foot; and a jump, landing into a sandpit with both feet together. 

The distance traveled, from the nearest break in the landing area to the front edge of the imprint made by the takeoff foot, is then measured. If the jumper steps beyond the board, a foul is committed, and the jump is disallowed. 

On her first competitive jump, Eke leaped only 29 feet. But she vowed to improve and did. She became one of the top high school triple jumpers in the nation and went on to compete at Columbia University. 

She has captured gold, silver, and bronze medals at the African Championships. 

Her longest jump is 14.33 meters, or a little more than 47 feet—longer than a Greyhound bus. 

In Tokyo, she’ll face stiff competition, which includes world triple jump champion Yulimar Rojas of Venezuela. She will also be battling rust, having not competed in more than a year—a time during which she launched her own company called Axxelerate, which prepares professional athletes for life after sports. 

Her biggest competitor, though, will be herself. “I’ve spent my entire career trying to improve over each jump,” she said.

It will be an Olympics filled with controversy. Amid an ongoing pandemic and a surge in COVID-19 cases in the country, critics continue to call for another postponement or an outright cancellation of the games. But organizers are plowing ahead.

Eke, who is vaccinated against the virus, believes it is important that the games go on. She stated that the international competition, which will draw some 15,000 athletes from about 200 countries, can serve as “a beacon of hope for a world facing one of the most daunting challenges in its history.” 

She will have to compete without the support of a crowd. All spectators have been banned from the games after Japan declared a state of emergency with new coronavirus restrictions intended to curb a wave of new infections. 

But Eke isn’t worried about feeding off the energy of fans. All she needs is to be inspired by her father, a former child soldier from Nigeria who fought in the Nigerian-Biafran conflict but escaped the ravages of war as a young man—moving to Ghana when he was 19 without a penny to his name. Despite having only a third-grade education, he started a successful clothing company. “When I was a little girl, I followed him everywhere, even when he went to meet with clients,” Eke recalled. “He is the reason I am who I am today.” 

Several other athletes with University of Miami ties will compete in Tokyo. They include: 

Baseball

Danny Valencia (Israel) — alumnus
Ben Wanger (Israel) — graduate student

Golf

Daniela Darquea (Ecuador) — alumna

Track & Field 

Michelle Ahoure (Ivory Coast) — alumna
Alysha Newman (Canada) — alumna 

Rowing 

Aisha Chow (Trinidad & Tobago) — alumna

Swimming & Diving 

Emma Gullstrand (Sweden) — student
Remedy Rule (Philippines) — incoming graduate student