The Irish sprints talent will never forget her harsh introduction to life in Texas, but her American education is pushing her to greater heights
The shock was almost immediate. Rhasidat Adeleke was barely two weeks into her time at the University of Texas when she was faced with her first racing assignment.
It was January 2021 and there had already been a lot for the then 18-year-old to contend with. The girl from Tallaght, just south of Dublin, had arrived in Austin mid-semester to start her scholarship and was just getting her bearings when the time came for a competitive test.
Adeleke is an athlete around whom there has been high expectation for some time. European under-18 200m champion at the age of 15, she had become accustomed to being well ahead of the curve – and winning. The reality of her new surroundings was about to change all of that.
“I had to get used to losing,” she laughs as she thinks back to the early days of life competing for the Longhorns. “I came from Ireland, I was in the European cycle, and I was very used to winning in that environment. Even before I came [to Texas], a lot of people I spoke to said: ‘You’re going to be a small fish in the big pond compared to being a big fish in a small pond’ and I was like: ‘Nah, I’ll be fine. I’ll be ready for it, I’m going to be good’.
“In my very first competition I ran maybe 24.50 [it was 24.46 indoors] and I had run 23.80 when I was 15. I was so disappointed, I came dead last in my heat. It was a big shock to me, because I wasn’t used to losing by such a big margin and it was very embarrassing.
“Throughout the season, I got used to losing and I’d be really hard on myself, I’d be very upset, I’d be crying… all of that.”
University life, however, was providing a fantastic education.
“It helped me build up that aspect of short-term memory that is so important as a high performance athlete,” she continues. “You’re not always going to win and that’s something Flo [coach Edrick Floréal] would say: ‘You need to have short-term memory, because you might lose this meet, but you have another one next week so you have to get back into a good mindset and get that confidence back to be able to perform at a level that you need.’
“That was something I adapted to and now I’m at a place where I try to see competitions as an opportunity instead of a threat.
“‘What if I lose? What if I don’t do well? What if other people don’t think I’m as good anymore?’. Instead of thinking those negative thoughts, I think of it as: ‘Let me show people what I’ve been working on, let me show people the talents I have’. This season I was looking at it as an opportunity more in a fun kind of way.
“That’s something I’ve been trying to tap into and I’ve really been enjoying it more. I want to keep that going throughout the rest of my career.”
It’s a career which has already delivered a number of highlights and there is a very real prospect of more. Only a few months on from that particularly harsh introduction to the NCAA circuit, Adeleke became European Under-20 100m and 200m champion. Last summer, she got her first taste of major senior championships when reaching the semi-finals of the 400m at the World Championships in Oregon before finishing fifth in the European 400m final in Munich.
Her progress was being monitored by many but it is Adeleke’s performances in 2023 which have begun to really command attention, as she has set about destroying a chunk of the many Irish records she holds.
First to go was her indoor 200m mark when she clocked 22.52 in Albuquerque in January. Next was a 400m indoor performance of 50.33 in Lubbock in February. March also brought a slice of history when she became the first Irish athlete to win a medal in a sprint event at the NCAA championships, winning indoor 400m silver.
The standout moment so far, however, came during an eventful weekend in Florida which changed everything. On April 14, Adeleke ran 22.34 for 200m outdoors. On April 15, the full lap of the track was covered in 49.90.
A truly historic 400m 🔥
Britton Wilson clocks a stunning 49.51 to win the 400m at the Tom Jones Invitational in Florida 🇺🇸
Only three women ran faster in the whole of last year 🤯
Rhasidat Adeleke also smashes her own Irish NR with 49.90 🇮🇪pic.twitter.com/mqZqQcdI3j
— AW (@AthleticsWeekly) April 15, 2023
No female Irish athlete had ever dipped under the fabled 50-second mark. This is the kind of progress which signals a genuine medal contender in the making. Adeleke believes she is now a far more formidable athlete, both mentally and physically. She is also paying heed to another major lesson learned in the heat of top-class battle.
“One thing I learned from the World Championships was don’t give too much respect to the pros,” she says. “For example, when I was in my 400m semi-final, [eventual champion] Shaunae Miller-Uibo – someone who I have so much respect for and is definitely one of my favourite track athletes – was in the lane outside of me.
“Flo was like: ‘Don’t let her get away from you. If you want to qualify for the final, it’s top two only so you need to be right on her’. For some reason, there was this thought in my head that she was supposed to be in front of me, because of all her accolades, everything she’s achieved and how fast she’s run in previous years. So when the gun went off, and she was running away, I kind of let her because I thought she was supposed to be in front of me.”
Adeleke finished fourth and out of the running.
“That kind of changed my mindset that anyone is beatable – you just have to be able to commit to doing so,” she adds. “Regardless of anything that someone has achieved – Olympic gold medallist, world medallist – if you set your mind to it, you can do it so don’t count yourself out.
“I took that approach when it came to the Europeans. I was racing against Femke [Bol] and Natalia [Kaczmarek], a bunch of athletes who had run really fast times and I just put us all on the same level, because we were all on the same level, we were all in the European final.
“I just tried to remove that preconception that these athletes are better than me, or they’re faster than me, and [gave myself permission] to just go for it. I kind of died at the end but at least I went for it. That was a really good learning experience for me.”
All of that will be poured into her efforts at this year’s World Championships in Budapest.
“Because I have the time to back it up, that gives me more confidence that I can actually compete with these girls, instead of trying to convince myself that I can compete with them.”
First, however, will come the major focus of the collegiate season. The starting gun for the NCAA Championships will be fired on June 7 and, with this year’s edition being hosted at Adeleke’s home track in Austin, the pressure to perform will be real, particularly given that she was also part of the Longhorns line-up which won the 4x400m title at the Texas Relays last month.
“[We’re] really close, [there’s a] a really good bond and that definitely helps us when it comes to competitions, because we’re all supporting each other,” she says of the set-up.
“It’s really good to be in such a positive environment where everyone works with each other to help each other move forward. I couldn’t imagine myself at any other school than Texas. I absolutely love it here.”
Peaking for those championships and then doing likewise in Budapest later in the summer will be no easy task for the student whose degree focuses on Corporate Communication. A similar scenario could lie in wait next year ahead of what Adeleke hopes will be the summer in which she becomes an Olympian.
She may well also graduate in 2024 but, should the right opportunity come along, turning professional before then could become a new reality. The 20-year-old insists it’s not something to which she is giving much thought right now. Her preference is to focus on the long-term plan of overcoming the disappointment of not being selected for Tokyo. That still rankles but has also fuelled a desire not be to be denied again.
“Now I won’t rely on trying to chase a time or trying to be on a relay team,” says Adeleke, whose love of beauty and fashion means she also harbours ambitions of a modelling career. “I’ll be going out there for myself and being able to do this for me and the people who support me and the people who have helped me to get to this point. It’s just so much bigger than I am. There are so many people who want it for me.”
Adeleke’s profile continues to grow back home. It’s only when she receives messages from her friends and family about the publicity her performances have been generating in Ireland that the realisation really starts to dawn.
“I’m very naive sometimes to the fact that I’m becoming a bigger name,” she says.
So would that 15-year-old who made such a big breakthrough on the European stage be surprised at what her world looks like now?
“To be honest, I was always very ambitious,” says Adeleke. “When I was at that stage, I was already looking to the next thing. My 15-year-old self would have been really happy with the way that I’ve progressed and the decisions I’ve made. I think she would be happy because I’m following the plan that she gave me.”
This feature first appeared in the May issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here