The African Games | Rabat 2019

The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall.
— Vince Lombardi
Flings Owusu-Agyapong and Gemma Acheampong of Ghana Women’s 4x100 Relay; African Games 2019

I often share the good moments in these meets; the highlights, the laughs, the funny scenarios. What I don’t often share are the struggles and stress that happen before, during, and after competition. I’m often told social media should be a highlight reel, a way for people to live vicariously through the people they follow. But lately, I’ve been trying to be more open. People have their ideas about what life is like as an athlete, ideas that are usually filled with misconceptions. I won’t say the highlights I share aren’t real because they are. But I don’t want to diminish the trials that have to be overcome to get to those moments. 

So here’s my deep dive into my 2019 African Games experience.

A Little Backstory

Gemma Acheampong in starting blocks; African Games 2019

I was chosen to be a part of the African Games team a few months before they were to take place. However, with a month to go before the start of them, I had no idea when I’d be traveling. I had an idea of when I wanted to travel, but oftentimes lines get crossed; especially with so many organizers involved. This usually amounts to me assuming travel dates and planning to the best of my abilities.

What does all that really mean, though? It means during the week I expect to travel, I gather all my travel necessities and get packed and ready to go a few days out of my assumed travel date. Sometimes tickets can be sent the day before we’re supposed to fly out, and this time was no different. 

Flings Owusu-Agyapong and Gemma Acheampong of Ghana Women’s 4x100 Relay; African Games 2019

Unfortunately, my flight was delayed so long that it would be impossible to catch any of my connecting flights, so I had to go home and try again the next day. I arrived in Casablanca a day late but in high spirits. 

Our relay hadn’t been able to have a camp to practice together due to lack of funds, so we all planned to go to Rabat early to get as much practice in with each other as we could. 

For context, Flings and I live and train together which means we can practice our hand-offs before we have to head off to camps or competitions. This is one of the reasons our relay positions have stayed the same all these years. Out of every relay leg, we’ve been able to get in the most practice, and by the end of every season, we have our steps down near perfect. The same can’t be said for legs two through four. That’s where a relay camp comes in. All the years we’ve run fast times on the 4x100m relay came after at least a month of eating, breathing, and sleeping relay practice at some sort of camp.

Personally, camping isn’t on my list of favorite things to do. Tempers can sometimes run high, it gets boring very quickly, and homesickness can be rampant. Nevertheless, I can’t deny how effective they are. In 2016, after a month of camping with the relay in Cape Coast, Ghana, we broke the national record. Camping ensures relay cohesiveness and accounts for anything that might go wrong.

Rabat, Morocco

Gemma Acheampong, Halutie Hor, and Deborah Acquah of Ghana Women’s 4x100 Relay; African Games 2019

Now, back to Rabat. This year, there was no camp. Hosting a relay camp isn’t cheap and the government hasn’t given much of a concerted effort to support track and field when compared to football (or soccer for all my American readers). And so, with no funding available, we forewent the camp. 

Instead, we chose to run with the same team we had in Japan at the World Relays and planned to refine our steps as much as we could with the time we had. And practice went well. Our team is resilient and over the years we’ve learned to roll with the punches. I mean, just earlier this year we barely made it to Yokohama and were able to pull off something amazing. Why should this be any different?

Coach Christian Nsiah, Flings Owusu-Agyapong, and Deborah Acquah of Ghana Women’s 4x100 Relay; African Games 2019

In the midst of all this, we were also dealing with trying to find uniforms for the team. Our International Games Committee was responsible for procuring and sending uniforms for track and field, but whichever person made the uniform decisions has never watched a track meet in their life. Why couldn't the committee have given money to the national federations, the Ghana Athletics Association (GAA) in my case, to procure equipment early? The jerseys looked cheap, were too large for most, and didn’t come with enough bottoms for everyone. Always anticipating the worst, I’ve learned over the years to bring old uniforms with me for situations like this. However, many on the team were participating in their first big international competition for Ghana and didn’t have that same option. 

Working closely and in sync with the officials of the GAA that were both in the village and abroad, as well as the coaches we had with us, we scrambled for a solution. We searched stores in Rabat and Casablanca, tried to find stores abroad to ship uniforms to the Games Village, and even considered sending one of the coaches abroad himself to find something suitable to bring back. Sadly, although we could find uniforms in the US to buy, it was virtually impossible to get it shipped and arrive in time for competition.In the end, we couldn't pull anything off. Time ran out and we just had to settle with what we had. So, the team made do.

And the days progressed. Rounds were run and medals were won. Then, as these things sometimes go, an injury occurred. Persis, our third leg extraordinaire, was injured while running her 100m semi-finals. In a camp, I would have practiced handing off to three different people, just in case something like this occurred. This time we didn’t have the time for all that.

Gemma Acheampong and Deborah Acquah of Ghana Women’s 4x100 Relay; African Games 2019

Of course, we had alternates listed. Our first was Grace, a girl who was in the middle of running her 400m rounds. Another was our long jumper, Deborah, who had some relay experience from college and some speed to back it up. We decided to go with Deborah on the day of the semi-finals, after doing hand-offs with both her and Grace during warm-ups. And it worked out. We made finals happy and hopeful.

The next day we returned to the track and worked on our steps a bit more. Practiced a few more hand-offs during our warm-up. And marched into the stadium ready for gold. Then, we promptly spent an hour arguing with meet officials about lane assignments. For some reason, the meet officials had assigned Zambia to run in lane 9, but this track only had 8 lanes. Every other country agreed that they should just move into lane 1 since it was open. They refused. They wanted everyone to just move down a lane, so lane 9 would become lane 8, lane 8 would become lane 7, and so on and so forth. For the rest of us, this seemed unfair. Tempers flared and debates ensued. In the end, the majority lost because the officials didn’t want to fix their original error by just re-assigning the lanes properly. We all moved down a lane.

Frazzled and with stiff bodies cold from standing around needlessly, we headed to the track. I set my mark on the track. Got into position and waited. Flings came around the bend flying and I was off. A smooth exchange, a strong straightaway run, and I was handing to Deborah. And things seemed perfect. Her hand was perfect, the position was perfect. And yet. And still. The baton fell. And my gold medal hopes and dreams fell with it.

This one hurt. This isn’t the first failure I’ve encountered in track and field and it sure as hell won’t be the last. But I felt this one on a level I really can’t explain. Looking back on it, I really think it’s because, despite everything, I really expected everything to work out. In fact, I expected to go home with a gold medal and a winning bonus to help pay a huge chunk of bills. In all our years of stress and worry and last-minute workarounds, it has always worked out. But this just wasn’t one of those times.

I was devastated. I tried to think of anything I could have done differently. I came up blank. There was no one on the team to blame. We had all worked to the best of our abilities and situation and this just happened to be the result of that. 

The Aftermath

Flings Owusu-Agyapong and Deborah Acquah of Ghana Women’s 4x100 Relay; African Games 2019
Halutie Hor and Gemma Acheampong of Ghana Women’s 4x100 Relay; African Games 2019

It’s been over a week since the relay, and I’m on the upswing mentally. I’m getting back into practice and putting recovery and rehab at the forefront of my mind. We still have World Championships to aim for and if anything, this loss is just fuel to give it our all there.

I’ve got a month of training before the Championships. A month of staying healthy and putting my best out there every day. Then we do it all, again. We try our best and hope and pray that all our hard work is reflected on the track. At the end of the day, that’s really all you can do and all anyone can ask of you. If I can do that, I’ll be proud no matter what the outcome. 

Please, let me know what you think of this deep-dive into my world of track and field. I appreciate any and all feedback.

Photography: Zaza Wellington