No matter the outcome of this weekend’s NCAA Track and Field Championships, which takes place on her home track at the University of Texas in Austin, Rhasidat Adeleke is likely to have run her last collegiate race for quite some time. Perhaps ever.
Because now comes the question Adeleke must ask herself: how good can she truly be?
In cruising into the final of the 400 metres, Adeleke again went where no Irish athlete has gone before, becoming the first Irish woman to reach an outdoor NCAA sprint final. Still two months shy of her 21st birthday, Adeleke also set up one of the showdowns of the weekend, as she will face the American Britton Wilson, who beat her to the NCAA indoor title back in March.
Adeleke won the first semi-final in 49.86 seconds, the second fastest one-lap run of her life, after improving her Irish record to 49.54 last month (her sixth record this year); Wilson then won the second semi-final in 49.36, a full half-a-second faster, an NCAA and stadium record. Already a world champion in the 4x400m relay with the US last summer, the 22-year-old Arkansas athlete is unquestionably the favourite, having run 49.13 last month.
The women’s NCAA championships were first staged outdoors in 1982, and in the four decades since, just three Irish women have won outdoor titles: Sonia O’Sullivan, running for Villanova, won the 3,000m in 1990 and 1991; Valerie McGovern claimed the 5,000m in 1990; and Mary Cullen did likewise in 2006.
Adeleke will probably need to improve again on her 49.54 to have any chance of beating Wilson, although Sophie O’Sullivan, daughter of Sonia, might well beat her to that next Irish NCAA title. She won her 1,500m semi-final in 4:09.58, which was just outside her best and made her the fastest qualifier for her final. O’Sullivan, running with the University of Washington on the west coast, will race first (2:12am Sunday Irish time).
Unless they drop the baton (or are guilty of impeding, as they were in the 4x400m relay semi-final), Texas will win the 4x100m relay as well, Adeleke cruising through the third leg as they ran another collegiate record of 41.55 in qualifying.
Had everything gone to plan, she would have raced six times in two days, completing another demanding indoor and outdoor season, run in quick succession. She still has another year at Texas to complete, on course to graduate in corporate communication in May 2024 (Adeleke is taking extra classes to meet that target, having started midyear, in January 2021).
That would leave her two months out from the Paris Olympics, with another NCAA championships to complete. As unquestionably Ireland’s best medal hope on the track since O’Sullivan in Sydney 2000 (Adeleke’s 49.54 would have got her fourth in Tokyo), the lure of “turning pro”, as they say Stateside, is surely impossible to resist.
That was one of the pressing questions during my week in Austin back in April, before she’d first even broken 50 seconds, turning pro being a move that would effectively tie her to a shoe contract (for a decent six-figure sum) while racing more selectively and ideally productively in the build-up to Paris.
“I’m just saying how things play out, I’m very open-minded about it,” Adeleke told me at the time. “If a really good opportunity comes along. But even if it does, and I feel like I’m not ready, I would go there yet. It just all depends on how I feel.
“In school, a lot of things are taken care of for me here, everything medically, mentally, if I need anything I can just call one of the staff. Once you go pro, you don’t necessarily have all that support. You have to seek it outside.”
There’s no doubt her progress in Austin has been astonishing, coming as it has on top her of academic commitments – Texas is known as one of the Public Ivies, given its perceived collegiate experience on the level of the hallowed Ivy League universities. With tuition fees for non-Texas residents being around $70,000 (€65,000) per year, Adeleke’s scholarship is already of significant monetary value.
Coach Flo – or Edrick Floréal as he is less commonly known – is acutely aware of this juncture too, and is adamant he won’t stand in her way, but would continue to coach her, within the same Austin limits, right through to Paris and beyond.
“If the time is right for her to go and make a living out of this, I’ve already told her she can stay at Texas as long as she wants, and I’ll coach her,” he told me. “My job is to get her into the [Olympic] final. The reality is she’s a rare talent, but is she going to be running for Texas next year?
“Ideally, you don’t want to hold someone too long. There are natural jumps in life, and if someone produces those times, whether it’s right for the school or not, it’s right for the athlete. If I’m holding them back, I’m just a selfish son of a gun.”
Wilson, incidentally, has already made up her mind on that matter, finishing up at Arkansas for the time being as she pursues her Paris dreams and the thought of how good she can really be.
Adeleke will probably have to sacrifice some of the natural camaraderie that comes with being in college, and Texas will miss her too, with Ricky Morgan, the assistant sprint coach, describing her as a “big, big game player, like bringing a Michael Jordan to the team”.
To be as good as she can truly be for Paris, few could deny the wise move now would be to take the money and just run.