Olympics 2016: Smoky Hill grad Zainab Sanni ready to run in Rio

T&F Rock Chalk Classic
University of Kansas sprinter Zainab Sanni races during the Rock Chalk Classic on April 30, 2016, in Lawrence, Kansas. Sanni, a graduate of Aurora’s Smoky Hill High School, recently traveled to her native Nigeria and earned her way into the pool for the country’s sprint relay team at the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. (Photo courtesy Kansas Athletics)

Life in Nigeria has changed a lot since Zainab Sanni called it home, but she returned for the first time in 12 years for an important purpose.

The former track star at Aurora’s Smoky Hill High School — who was born in Nigeria and came to Colorado with her family when she was 9 — earned a chance to represent her native country at the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

At the All-Nigeria Championships at Sapele, Delta State, Sanni sprinted her way into the Olympic relay pool for the Nigerian women’s track team with a sixth-place finish in the 100-meter dash. The current University of Kansas standout didn’t run the times she’d hoped for, but it gave her the Olympic shot nonetheless.

Smoky Hill's Zainab Sanni poses March 15 at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora. (Heather L. Smith/Aurora Sentinel)
Olympic-bound sprinter Zainab Sanni poses for a portrait while a junior at Smoky Hill in 2012. Sanni, who moved from Nigeria to Colorado with her family when she was 9 years old, earned a chance to represent her native country on a relay with the women’s track team at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. (Aurora Sentinel file photo)

“It feels really good, I’m happy about making it and being able to represent Nigeria at the Olympics,” Sanni told the Sentinel a few days after she returned to the United States.

“My performance overall wasn’t the best, but to still come out and be part of the team, I look at it as a blessing,” she added.

“This was my first time back since we moved to Colorado and I like Nigeria, but it’s a very different atmosphere than I was used to.”

When the Rio Olympics begin on Aug. 3, Sanni will join a pair of Regis Jesuit graduates — swimmers Missy Franklin and Clark Smith — as athletes with ties to Aurora schools who will compete.

Sanni traveled much further than the swimmers (who competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha), but she made the nearly 7,000-mile journey with a hopeful heart.

As a junior at Smoky Hill in 2012, Sanni told the Sentinel she saw herself in the Olympics in 10 years.

It happened much sooner, as the 21-year-old navigated adverse conditions at the Sapele Township Stadium and unfamiliarity with way the often-chaotic meets are run in Nigeria to punch her ticket to Rio.

“I’ve been working very hard in college and I’ve had my ups and downs; there’s no perfect time to make it so any opportunity to make it this far is a blessing,” Sanni said.

“You just can’t say, ‘I’m going to go this year or in four years,’ you just have to follow the journey and God’s will and that’s what I’m doing.”

Running on a track riddled with potholes and covered with puddles from the African country’s rainy season, Sanni was unable to qualify for the Olympics individually in the 100 or 200 meters, but her sixth-place finish in the 100 put her in the pool for Nigeria’s sprint relay team.

Smoky Hill’s Zainab Sanni, right, finishes in front of Cherokee Trail’s Shayna Yon during the championship final of the 100 meter dash at the 2013 Class 5A state track meet at Jefferson County Stadium. Sanni, who finished behind Regis Jesuit star Ana Holland, now runs for the University of Kansas, Holland is at Colorado and Yon at Louisiana State. (Aurora Sentinel file photo by Courtney Oakes)

Sanni has come a long way from when she first got serious about track and field, and she thinks back fondly on her time as a four-time varsity letter-winner and six-time Class 5A state meet placer with Smoky Hill, where former Buffs coach Jeff Bliven helped her tap into her ability in track.

With Smoky Hill, Sanni qualified for the 5A state track meet three times individually and finished in the top four of the 100 and 200 meters every season. As a junior in 2012, she came in second in both sprint events behind Pine Creek phenom Alleandra Watt.

Sanni won the Centennial League championship in the 100 meters as a freshman, but missed state because her time was wind-aided, though she ran at state with the Buffaloes’ 4×100 relay team.

Bliven encouraged her to keep pushing despite the disappointment.

“I remember we were standing along the fenceline at state watching and I said to her ‘this sport can take you places,’” Bliven recalled. “She said ‘I know, I love this sport.’ I’m so pleased with how her life has evolved since she came to the U.S.”

Sanni gives Bliven a huge amount of credit for her success.

“If it wasn’t for Bliven, I probably wouldn’t be where I am right now,” Sanni said. “I look at him like a father and he has supported me and helped me get into club track and everything.

“We still talk, and I forever owe everything to him. He’s just been a major contributor to my success.”

NCAA T&F West Preliminary - Day One
In her junior year at Kansas, Zainab Sanni (523) finished second in the women’s 100 meters at the Big 12 Championships and helped two relay teams placed third. (Photo courtesy Kansas Athletics)

Sanni found another impactful coach at Kansas in sprints coach Elisha Brewer, who has helped her to continue to progress. Her highlights with the program so far includes a runner-up finish in the 100 meters at the Big 12 Championships in May, where she also helped the Jayhawks’ 4×100 and 4×400 relay teams finish third.

Including Sanni, five current or former Jayhawks qualified for the Olympics in track and field, joining Jamaican thrower Daina Levy (her teammate the last three years) and Americans Kyle Clemons (4×400 relay), Mason Finley (another Colorado product in the discus) and Andrea Geubelle (triple jump).

Though Sanni said the information wasn’t exactly flowing from the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, she expects to attempt a short short training camp with the team — possibly in Miami — before they head off to Rio, where Sanni said the team will work on its handoffs to get its chemistry together.

The Nigerian women have tradition in the 4×100 meter relay at the Olympics, as the country earned bronze medals in the event at both the 1992 Games in Barcelona and the 2008 Games in Beijing.

No matter what happens in the Olympics, Sanni is grateful for the chance. She hopes the experience helps her toward her goal of launching a professional track career after she graduates from Kansas.

“Anybody who gets this opportunity should be thankful to God for bringing them this far and I surely am,” she said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to advertise yourself and show you are one of the best in the world. It’s a great blessing and I’m very motivated to use it as a starting block.

“It hasn’t really, fully sunk in yet, but I’m sure it will be once I get there. I’m definitely excited.”

Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel