The beat of Lil Wayne’s “6 Foot 7 Foot” fades to silence as Kunle Fasasi wraps his earbuds around his iPhone. He places them inside his orange and blue backpack, whispers a quick prayer and jogs over to Lane 6 inside Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium.
It’s late in the afternoon on March 10. Kunle and the rest of the Florida men’s track and field team are in College Station, Texas, for Day 2 of the 2018 NCAA Indoor Championships.
The final for the 4x400-meter relay is about to begin, and Kunle is leading off for the Gators.
Clutching his baton, the junior sprinter crouches close to the ground with his arms stretched in front of his body. He places his right heel into the metal footplate on the ground and — in the same routine motion — pulls his left leg in toward his bowed head.
There are three other athletes holding Kunle’s same position in their respective lanes.
He glances at the sprinter to his left. Then at the one on his right. He knows he’s looking at an opponent, someone who’s aching for his team to cross that white finish line first just as badly as he is.
But that’s not who Kunle sees.
Instead, he sees a slim-figured, 6-foot-1 sprinter wearing a black Nike mesh headband tied at the back of his head. He sees his same black watch wrapped around his right wrist and an orange elastic bracelet hanging on his left. He sees another Kunle Fasasi.
At least, that’s what he tells himself before every race. He makes himself the opponent, and he visualizes it until that image becomes a part of him. Because in his mind, it’s more about Kunle than anyone else.
He has, after all, faced adversity throughout his athletic career. Whether it was a coach who told him he wouldn’t succeed or a lack of training resources available to him in his hometown, Kunle only had one mindset throughout his journey to becoming a college athlete.
“You have to work for what you want,” he said.
And that way of thinking is exactly what got him here.
* * *
“Set!” the official’s voice echoes throughout the indoor track stadium.
Kunle straightens his legs and lifts his body into a stationary position. The runner to his left does the same thing. Kunle peeps over at him.
He pictures himself at 7 years old, back when he spent most of his days inside his house in the small town of Ile-Ife, Nigeria.
Most children in Ile-Ife spend their free time outdoors playing sports, but Kunle’s interests fell elsewhere.
He was a homebody.
He preferred staying inside to watch classic movies like “Coming to America” and enjoyed spending time with his family.
He lived with his mom, Motunrayo; his dad, Adeyini; and his two older sisters, Biodun and Kemi.
Adeyini — who teaches physics and materials science at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife — made academics a top priority for his children.
Earning good grades was always the No. 1 focus in the Fasasi household.
And Kunle was an introvert. He mostly kept to himself in the comfort of his own room.
But every now and then, Kunle would sneak away from his open books and study guides to play some friendly games of soccer with his peers.
“I loved everything about it,” he said.
His friends always thought he was quick and suggested he start to run track.
And after some early apprehensions, he decided to give it a try.
* * *
The sound of the starter gun ripples through the stadium as Kunle and his competitors begin to sprint forward. Kunle feels the runner to his left dash ahead of him. He pictures himself at 17 years old.
At that time, the 2012 Summer Olympics were being broadcast on local television networks in Nigeria.
Kunle sat in front of the TV in his living room and waited for the highly anticipated men’s 110-meter hurdles to begin. The race featured a pair of veterans in reigning world champion Jason Richardson of the United States, as well as world-record holder and defending Olympic champion Dayron Robles of Cuba. An afterthought in the field of competitors was American hurdler Aries Merritt, a 27-year-old from Marietta, Georgia, who had relatively little experience on the big stage.
Kunle’s eyes zeroed in on Merritt, who was sporting a red USA uniform on his chest and cornrows on top of his head.
He observed as Merritt flew off the starting line, pulling away from his opponents as he flung his body over each hurdle. He watched as Merritt leaned across the finish line, becoming the first American to win a gold medal in the men’s 110-meter hurdles since Allen Johnson accomplished the feat in 1996.
That moment solidified Kunle’s decision to become a track runner.
“I think I can do this,” he said to his father.
Kunle started searching for a coach to help him train. He reached out to one local man who refused to help him. He felt that Kunle was too skinny and didnt think he could run.
But Kunle persevered, knowing that no part of the journey would be easy.
“You have to work for what you want,” he said.
Eventually, he found coach Ayokunle Odelusi.
Kunle wanted to train for the hurdles after being inspired by Merritt’s Olympic race. But Odelusi didn’t have access to enough hurdles in Nigeria to train him for that event. He felt that one of Kunle’s strengths could be endurance, so he decided to train him for the 400.
Kunle trained with Odelusi five days a week.
He woke up every morning, said his usual prayer and departed for his 7:30 a.m. training session, which lasted anywhere from two to three hours. Until he finished high school, he rushed straight from practice to class.
One day, a sudden realization hit Kunle. If he was going to reach his full potential as a track athlete, he would have to move to the United States.
Living in America would provide him with the security he needed to participate in sports while also getting a quality education. He’d have the proper resources, the proper training facilities and the proper environment he’d need to be successful.
* * *
“The three fastest times ever in collegiate history in this final section,” the announcer yells into a microphone.
It’s just the leadoff leg of the race, but USC’s Zach Shinnick has already put his team in position to run the fastest 4x400 relay time in history, with Texas A&M’s Ilolo Izu and Kunle running record-setting times right behind him.
But Kunle isn’t thinking about that as he rounds the corner. He can feel the runner narrowing the gap behind him.
He thinks about when he began the complicated process of searching for the right school in the U.S.
“They say you can only do track for so long,” Kunle said.
And he didn’t plan to waste a fleeting moment of his career not doing whatever he could to be successful.
“As soon as I was willing to train and become a better athlete,” Kunle said, “I knew I was willing to seek scholarships in the U.S. and give myself a better life.”
He began talks with LSU and Clemson and had almost made up his mind that LSU was the right fit when — at the last minute — the school backed out.
But at that time, a friend of his, who now competes as a professional long jumper in Nigeria, was being recruited by the University of Florida.
She told the team’s recruiting coach about Kunle. The coach then informed head coach Mike Holloway, and they looked him up.
Kunle had vowed to do whatever it took to attain his goal of becoming the best quarter-miler he could be from the moment he decided to run. Mike Holloway and the University of Florida gave him that chance, offering him a spot on the Gators’ roster.
One month before Kunle was set to leave his home in Nigeria in 2015, the reality of the move struck him.
It was something he’d never done before, something that — just months ago — had only been an imaginary vision crossing through his mind. But when he found himself looking at his VISA and booking his one-way flight to the U.S., he was finally living that dream he’d had for so long.
“It was like, I’m really leaving … but I wasn’t scared to leave,” Kunle said.
He saw no reason to be afraid. Did he know what to expect? No. Not many people in his same position do.
He’d only ever been to the U.S. once before in 2014 when he competed for Nigeria in the World Junior Championships in Eugene, Oregon.
He hadn’t had the opportunity beforehand to tour the university.
But Kunle knew what he had to do, and there was no doubt in his mind that leaving his entire family and life in Nigeria would eventually be worth it.
“I knew the goal before I started training so hard,” he said.
So he packed his bags, asked both of his parents to pray for him and he did what he had to do. There weren’t many tears. No emotional breakdowns.
“I don’t think it was hard for me to leave my family,” he said. “Because I had my eyes on the prize.”
* * *
It’s almost over. Only 45 seconds have ticked off the clock, but Kunle can tell by the intensifying cheers of the crowd that his leg of the race will soon end, and he can see the open hand of teammate Grant Holloway ready to take the baton out of his grasp.
He remembers a time when he could only aspire to be in this position. He remembers what it took to even get schools to show interest in him. He thinks about the goals he had set before arriving at Florida three years ago.
At that time, during his freshman year, he had just met Ryan Clark, who would become his closest teammate and friend. The two sprinters instantly bonded over track, and Kunle oozed a passion and ambition that captivated Ryan.
“I can see that desire in his eyes,” Ryan said. “It just rubs off on everybody around him.”
And from then on, Ryan watched Kunle.
He watched him talk about his plans for the future on their long walks to the Gator Corner Dining Center. He watched Kunle put an immense amount of pressure on himself whenever he stepped onto the track.
He watched Kunle tread nervously to the front of their public speaking class and mumble his first speech. And he watched Kunle articulate the best speech he had seen from him by the end of the semester.
He watched Kunle strain his hamstring during the 2017 indoor season. And then he saw him rebound from that during the outdoor season.
“I call him the silent assassin,” Ryan said. “He’s quiet. But he wants to be the best person out there.”
* * *
Kunle and teammates Holloway, Chantz Sawyers and Benjamin Lobo Vedel have just completed the 4x400-meter relay in 3:01.43, finishing third in the race behind USC and Texas A&M. While their efforts weren’t good enough to notch a victory, they did break the school record for the fastest time ever recorded in the event.
And they’re about to receive some other good news as well.
“Florida wins the NCAA indoor national title,” the announcer exclaims.
Propelled by Kunle, Holloway, Sawyers and Lobo Vedel, the Gators finished in first place at the meet, edging out USC by only three points.
Kunle watches as coach Holloway tells ESPN’s John Anderson about Florida’s long journey to the indoor title.
He watches his coach clutch the national championship trophy in his arms, the one they’d worked so hard all season for.
He takes a moment to soak it all in, but now he’s ready to get back to work. Because he understands that he has more to do.
He knows he must keep visualizing the road ahead of him. Keep challenging himself to get better. He’ll keep saying that it’s a race against himself as he bends down in his lane before the starting signal.
And he will continue to do whatever it takes to climb to the top of the track world until he’s the best quarter miler he can be.
“The day that Kunle Fasasi believes he’s one of the best 400-meter runners in the world,” coach Holloway said. “Watch out.”