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The Irish teen with the world at her feet

Rhasidat Adeleke on a memorable year in which she won two gold medals at the European Athletics U20 Championships and moved to Texas.

Ireland's Rhasidat Adeleke (file pic).
Ireland's Rhasidat Adeleke (file pic).
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

2021 WAS quite the year for 19-year-old Rhasidat Adeleke.

Highlights included an incredible two gold medals amid a 100m-200m sprint double at the European Athletics U20 Championships in Tallinn last July.

There was also a life-changing move to the US and an RTÉ Young Sportsperson of the year nomination, as she was ultimately pipped to the prize by another highly talented teenager in Gavin Bazunu.

“I’ll look back on it as a year to remember because this was a big year,” she tells The42.

Her memorable double gold secured back in July was far from Adeleke’s first time impressing on the international stage.

At just 15, she secured a gold medal in the 200m final at the European U18s Championships. 

Earlier this year, the Dubliner set a new Irish 200m record with a time of 22.96 when competing for the University of Texas at the Big 12 Championship in Manhattan.

Of the Euros triumph, she says: “In the past, I used to watch the European U20s and be like: ‘Wow, these are the best teenagers in Europe.’

“I was looking at the European U20s when I was under 18. I had only won my U18 medals and I was looking towards the U20 athletes and thought: ‘Oh wow.’ It’s going to be tough in the European U20s, I’d love to get a medal at it.

“So to win a gold medal was unreal. Because I’d competed in the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] event that year and I’ve been exposed to insane amounts of talent, I didn’t make it as big a deal as it should have been if that makes sense because I was exposed to so much talent in the NCAA.

“So when I sat down and realised what I’d just done, I concluded that I had done something [special] and I was proud of myself.”

She continues: “A lot was going on in the days after. There were a lot of interviews and things like that. It was huge because it’s just something that was never done before.

“My Instagram was going crazy, my Twitter, it was a laugh but it gave me the motivation to be able to work hard to see this again.

“I felt surprised [to receive praise] even from strangers and stuff. Or having them message me saying: ‘Oh, my kid loves you.’ That provided a lot of motivation for me in the off-season to be able to achieve the same things next year.”

Irish athletics legend Sonia O’Sullivan was among those tipping Adeleke for future success, commenting earlier this year: “Her time will come.”

The one sour note was narrowly missing out on a place at the Tokyo Olympics in the individual events, while she was also controversially omitted from the mixed relay team — a decision she subsequently expressed disappointment with and which drew criticism from O’Sullivan among others.

Nonetheless, Adeleke found the experience of watching the Olympics “really motivating” and she will no doubt be a strong contender to feature at Paris 2024.

And she can look back on the past 12 months with great satisfaction — one crucial decision, in particular, paid off.

“[The US] was a big move for me. It was kind of going into the land of the unknown. But coming out here was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

“I love it over here. No regrets at all. I love my team, I love my coach [Edrick FlorealI], love my facilities, my surroundings, Austin is an amazing experience to live — so much to do.

“I’m just so grateful that I chose this school and I made this decision because it’s not only great for my track career, it’s great for me as well. I’ve met so many great people, I’ve made so many connections.

“I’d advise anyone who is thinking of moving to the States [to give it a go]. A lot of people are nervous or think it’s a risk, but if you don’t like it, there’s always the option to come home.

“Someone has to make that first step and once that person does that and is successful, more people will be encouraged to make the move over.”

Adeleke admits she initially had doubts about moving Stateside.

“Most of the stories I heard about Irish athletes going to the US were all bad so I wasn’t sure what to expect. People were talking about: ‘Oh, I went there and I got injured.’ 

“So they weren’t the best stories and I was kind of nervous, but I had great trust in my coach, I spoke to him multiple times before making my decision. And it was a great team. They’ve not had a lot of injuries in the team, so I knew I was in safe hands. I haven’t had an injury at all since I’ve been here. So I just think it depends on where you go and who’s looking after you.

“I don’t get as homesick as I thought I would because I’m so occupied here. There’s always something going on. I’m so busy with training, I try to balance that with a loaded social life

“And I have a great family-type team here. There’s a lot of international students on my team, so we do our best to have that family-type of situation. It’s really good. We’re all pretty close. We all hang out on weekends and stuff. So it allows us to not miss home too much, but we do miss home.”

So does the Tallaght teenager feel she would not have experienced such success if a decision was instead made to stay in Ireland?

“Not necessarily. I feel like if I stayed in Ireland, I still would have been able to [compete at that level]. I don’t know how I would have [fared].

“I’ve always been one of the top athletes in Europe, so hopefully I would have been able to [progress] regardless of my situation.

“Being in the US allows me to be on the stage of certain competitions. For example, I’ve been against girls who run world-class times that would get them to an Olympic final. So it’s just given me more confidence knowing that I’ve been competing against the world’s best. So when I got to the Europeans, I had an unfazed mentality towards the competition.”

rhasidat-adeleke-and-phil-healy Rhasidat Adeleke of Tallaght A.C and Phil Healy of Bandon A.C race to the line in the 200m final of the Irish Health Life National Championships earlier this year. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Adeleke has just finished the first 12 months of a four-year economics degree, though she is considering changing majors owing to the intense workload the subject requires.

Speaking at the start of December, she also has found that Texas adopts a somewhat different outlook on Covid compared with Ireland.

“You know the way in Ireland that you hear ’4,000 new cases today’ etc? You don’t really hear about that on the news here. We don’t know which way Covid is going. We don’t have a mask mandate either.

“So Covid exists, but it no longer exists at the same time here, because everyone continues with regular life, everything is open as it would be usually. Sometimes there are light restrictions here and there, but there’s no [significant] sense of Covid here in Texas. In other states, yeah, but in Texas, not really.” 

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Representing Ireland on the international stage is a dream come true for Adeleke, who was born in Dublin to Nigerian parents, Ade and Prince.

“I feel like I’m representing everyone — definitely [the Nigerian community], definitely the whole nation. It’s great for African-Irish people to be able to see that people are thriving that are similar to them, so they believe they can also thrive in any aspect [of life] — sport, art, music, fashion, anything. So it’s good to have a great representation of different kinds of people.”

Her mother, in particular, has been a key component of Adeleke’s success.

“My mam brings me everywhere, she buys me everything, she’s one of the sole reasons I’m able to compete at the level that I do, and one of the sole reasons I was able to get to the point where I could get to the US.

“For all the competitions, she would make sure that she had planned her schedule around my schedule, making sure I didn’t miss school or training. So she’s been a huge influence.

“And how hard she works to make sure I reach my goals makes me more inspired to reach my goals. All the effort she puts in makes me want to put in more effort so she can feel my success is her success.”

A persuasive argument for the benefits of playing multiple sports growing up as opposed to early specialisation, “sports-mad” Adeleke waited until her teens to focus purely on athletics. 

“I did all the extra-curricular stuff in school. I did basketball, Gaelic, football. Then I got to secondary school. I did badminton, volleyball, Gaelic again, soccer. I did camogie when I was at boarding school, I did everything.

“Basketball was my main sport aside from track. When I got to the age of maybe 14, 15, I was trying to decide which sport to focus on — basketball or athletics. I decided to focus on athletics. That was a big decision for me.

“I’m a very competitive person when it comes to all sports so regardless I always give my all and I’ll always be competitive, but I never really saw basketball as a career for me. I felt track and field suited me more.”

Was there a particular moment where she decided athletics could represent a long-term pathway?

“Yeah, it was in 2017, when I qualified for the Europeans. That was like my breakthrough year.

“Before that, I was always number three in Ireland in my age group, maybe number two. But that year was incredible. Indoors, I broke all the underage records. I don’t know what happened, what clicked that year.

“I didn’t even know what the Youth Olympics were and they were telling me: ‘You’ve qualified.’ And from then on, I’ve just been getting better and better. So I was a late bloomer but I appreciate where I am today because it’s better to be a late bloomer than an early bloomer.

“A lot of people tend to give up before they reach their peak. Some people are only in sport to win it and others are there to enjoy it.

“So I feel like if you’re in sport to win and you’re not winning, you won’t find it enjoyable. But if you’re in sport because you love that sport, it gives you a chance to become the athlete that you strive to be.”

BTL 5

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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