I remember dates. I don’t know why.
One in particular sticks in my head. I’ll probably never forget it.
January 27, 2018.
I was competing in an invitational meet at Texas Tech, as a warm-up for the Millrose Games in New York a couple weeks later. As I got ready to run the 60 meter dash, I felt amazing. Hadn’t felt that great in a long time.
My coach, Tonja Buford Bailey, said, “You’re going to run both rounds really hard.”
So I did just that. Ran in the qualifying rounds and dominated. I ran 7.18, the fastest I have ever run in the month of January in the course of my entire career.
But after I cleared the finish line, I crashed into the padded wall, and my dorsiflexed right foot hit the wall in just the right, or wrong way, and my achilles tendon snapped.
I had struggled with achilles issues for a while, so when it happened what I felt wasn’t pain but a sense of relief. The tightness and the pressure I had gotten so accustomed to was gone. Instead, I felt pain in the front of my ankle, which had been jammed when it crashed into the wall.
Eventually, I made it over the athletic trainer’s tent and he delivers the bad news: I’d torn my achilles. I didn’t even know how to react. What am I supposed to do next? I thought. Where am I supposed to go?
What I did was cry. Hard. I called my mom. My sister. My best friend. Then, once I calmed down, I decided it would be nice to change out of my uniform. But I was on crutches, so I needed help carrying my clothes to the bathroom. I asked one of the girls on the Texas team to walk with me, but when I got in the stall I realized getting the clothes into the bathroom was the least of my worries.
You see, in order to take pants off, you have to be able to put both feet on the ground. Since I couldn’t do that, I had to sit on the floor of this dirty public restroom to do something as simple as changing clothes. In the process I dropped my phone in the toilet. All I could do was laugh at myself. What a day.
That night in the Lubbock airport on our way back to Austin, I looked over at my coach Tonja and asked, “Am I ever going to run 10.8?”
You see, I’ve never run 10.8. So what I was really asking her was, am I ever going to be better than I was before?
She didn’t really give me an answer. How could she? All she said was, “I’m going to be here with you through it.”
That was Saturday. By Monday, I was flying to Colorado Springs to receive treatment at the Olympic Training Center. Surgery happened Thursday, February 1. Back in Austin on Saturday.
Then, the real struggle began.
I’m pretty independent. I live alone, like to do my own thing.
But crutches don’t care what you like. They require you to have help 24/7. Want a glass of water? You can’t crutch from the cabinet where the glassware lives to the refrigerator, let alone carry a full glass across the room back to the couch.
All of a sudden, I needed other people for everything. I moved in with my best friend and lived with him for the next two and a half months. Occasionally, I’d get fed up and try to do things on my own, but that almost always resulted in disaster, including the time I fell and thought I had re-ruptured my achilles and the time I went back to my apartment for a few hours and shattered a glass in an attempt to get water for myself.
I also hated the pain medication. One Percocet was enough to dull the pain, but not eliminate it entirely. Two Percocets and all the pain was gone, but I couldn’t function and would fall asleep in less than 20 minutes.
February 15, two weeks post-op, I walked in a boot for the first time. I still needed a partial-weight crutch most of the time, but by getting rid of one crutch, I got the use of one hand back, which in turn restored so much of my freedom.
Around that time was also when I started physical therapy. I was so happy to be doing something, anything. Take a person who runs for a living and be like, “OK, sit down for two months.” That’s not an option for me. I don’t do nothing.
March 15, I was allowed to walk for an hour with the boot off. Two hours the next day, three the next, and on up until I could go the entire day without the boot.
Then on March 18, my strength coach, Clint Martin, called me to tell me that he had torn his patella tendon. I had been training with Clint for two years and I had planned on him being a big part of my comeback. But the tables turned pretty fast.
Clint’s got a roommate, but you know how guys are. If I felt reluctant to ask for help, I could only imagine how Clint was going to handle everything.
So I started calling Clint up every once in a while. “Hey,” I’d say, “I’m going to Chipotle, want me to pick you up anything?”
I wasn’t going to Chipotle, but I knew he probably hadn’t eaten a full meal that day.
That was the start of our true friendship. Clint and I have done everything together in terms of the rehab process. They say the patella tendon is the achilles of the knee, so we’ve gone through a lot of similar things. We really understand what the other is going through.
Then on June 24, I was watching the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships on TV, and I saw Erik Kynard get hurt competing in the high jump. When it happened, he grabbed his ankle, and I immediately thought, oh my gosh, I hope it’s not his achilles. Erik and I were on the 2016 Olympic team and 2017 World Championships team together, so I know Erik pretty well and that’s the last thing I’d want for him.
But that night, I got a text from Erik. It just said, “Hey, what’s up?” but as soon as I saw his name pop up on my phone I knew. There was no other reason for him to be texting me post-injury. He’d torn his achilles.
I was able to talk to Erik in a way that I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I told him, “I know you’re doubting everything, questioning whether you’re ever going to be able to jump again. But, it’s going to be OK.”
He actually just texted me a couple days ago, on January 22, when it had been about six months for him, and I told him, “Six months is hard. Six months is when you feel good, but you’re not good. You have some days when you’re running and jumping and you feel 100 percent. But then the next day, you feel like you’re zero and you’re like, I can’t walk again.”
Something else I tell Erik is, “take a vacation.”
On June 30, that’s what I did. Up until that point, I had been obsessive about my recovery. About what I was eating, and about PT. Constantly doubting that the tendon had been put together well enough, that it would ever be strong enough to do what I needed it to do.
But that day, I just stopped. I hopped on a plane to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and didn’t come back to Austin for more than a few days at a time until mid-August. I traveled to New Orleans, LA, Atlanta, and home to Chicago a few times. I went overseas to Rome, Milan and London.
It was the first time in my life I had ever traveled like that, without a track meet waiting for me at the other side of a long flight.
One day in Rome, I was sitting on the patio of an Italian restaurant, eating pasta and drinking wine outside with three of my friends. The same friend at whom’s house I lived post-injury looked at me and said, “Would you rather have not torn your achilles?”
I still think about that question, but I don’t have an answer for it.
No one wants to tear their achilles. I say that this is the worst injury in the world and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But if I didn’t tear my achilles, I wouldn’t have been sitting there in Rome enjoying a beautiful summer day, eating bruschetta and drinking wine.
And I wouldn’t have learned two really important things.
The first thing I realized during my travels was that I really, really love track and field and I am not done with this sport yet.
The second thing I learned is that I really, really love life without track and field, too. If I never run a track meet again, I’ll be OK. Sometimes I feel like athletes can’t see the world outside of their sport, and when it’s time to leave, they hang on a little longer out of fear of what comes next. Thanks to my injury, I learned there is so much left in the world I haven’t experienced and so much more I want to do.
But back to that first thing. I returned to Austin in mid-August and jumped back into my obsessive level of training and recovery on the first Monday in September. Actually, let’s rephrase that, obsessive has a negative connotation to it. I’m focused. I have very clear goals I’m aiming for.
Not goals in numbers, like “I want to run 10.85,” because I don’t believe in those kinds of goals. If I make 10.85 my goal and I don’t reach it, I’m going to be really hard on myself and hurt my self-esteem. But it’s possible by setting a goal of 10.85, I’m also limiting myself. What if I could have run even faster if I hadn’t decided that 10.85 was the ultimate marker of success?
I still have goals, but they’re larger scale. One correlates to the date July 24, 2020—the Tokyo Olympics.
Another is that whenever I do decide I’m done with track and field, I want to be talked about as one of the greatest sprinters ever. I know questions like that are always open to debate. After all, who’s the best basketball player of all time? Was it Kareem with all the rings? Was it MJ? Lebron? Kobe? I just want to be in the conversation.
When people wonder, “Who was the best 100-meter sprinter of all time?” I want them to say, “Was it Morolake Akinosun?”
I’m not there yet, but today, January 27, 2019, marks a full year since I ruptured my achilles. It’s been the best and worst year of my life. I’ve been training full-speed since November, and I put on spikes for the first time on Monday (January 21, if you were wondering).
But it’s coming. I feel a difference every single day.
And here are a couple upcoming dates I plan on remembering for a long time. March 23: my first post-injury competition, the Prairie View A&M Invitational, where I’ll be running a relay. March 30: Texas Relays, a chance to compete on my home track. That’s the day I run my first 100m race since September 2, 2017 and my first individual race since January 27, 2018.
Morolake Akinosun was a member of the University of Texas track and field team from 2013 to 2016. While competing for the Longhorns, Akinosun collected 13 Big 12 titles and four NCAA 4×100 championships. For Team USA, she took home a gold medal as a member of the 4×100 relay team at the 2015 Pan American Games and a year later won a gold medal at the Rio Olympics as a member of the 4×100 relay team.