Mobolade Ajomale watched a television under the Olympic stadium stands as Team Canada finished fourth in the 4x100m in Rio de Janeiro. His head dropped. Every day since arriving in Rio for the 2016 Olympics, Ajomale — an alternate — and his teammates had been talking each other up about earning a medal.
But as he grabbed his bags to leave, he heard the news: Team USA was disqualified, meaning Canada moved into the third place spot. He watched his teammates step onto the podium and receive their awards.
As an alternate, Ajomale’s medal would be mailed to Canada, but it would likely take months to arrive. His chiropractor, however, was there, in a tunnel under the stands, trying to find a medal that Ajomale could have right away. An extra bronze medal happened to turn up.
“My mind just went blank,” Ajomale said. “I saw it and my mind went blank. I was ecstatic.”
Now a senior at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and a 17-time Division II All-American — the reigning Division II Outdoor Track Athlete of the Year — Ajomale, 23, is finishing his last collegiate track season with the hopes of using his communications degree to work in radio, and receiving a sponsorship to continue to run for Team Canada and compete in the 2020 Olympics.
Ajomale’s parents — mother Dotun Ajomale and father Bola Ajomale — were in Rio to watch their son the night he became an Olympic medalist for the first time.
“It was beyond what we could ever ever ever have imagined. The fact that he qualified was just mind-boggling. We couldn’t believe it, and then to have that opportunity to actually go.” Dotun Ajomale said. “We just kept pinching ourselves. Our son is part of the elite of the elite in the whole world. How did that happen?”
Born in England, Ajomale moved when he was 3 years old to Nigeria, his parents’ home country. His family moved to Canada eight years later, where he discovered his speed.
As someone who lived in three countries by age 11, Ajomale seemed destined to travel, but he started track late. In 10th grade, he had his first track meet. He trained by running in the school’s hallways and on the pavement in the parking lot. Even with limited formal training, he made it to World Juniors that year. Since then, track has taken him to Barcelona; back to London, where he ran next to Usain Bolt; Rio; South Korea and all around the United States.
“The more I traveled the more I wanted to travel. The more I competed, the more I wanted to compete,” Ajomale said. “So it just fueled that love I have for track and field and I just never stopped.”
When he finished high school, he was determined to train harder. He watched runners excel in training programs in the U.S. and saw others who stayed in Canada fall behind. Maybe it was Canada’s cold winters, which forced the athletes to train indoors. Maybe it was something else. Whatever the reason, Ajomale had his mind made up.
Getting to the states included a few anxious nights, prayers with his mom and a word from his pastor. Ajomale was set to go to the University of Alabama when he was told his courses wouldn’t transfer only days before school was supposed to start.
“We went to our pastor at church and he prayed about it as well,” Ajomale said. “What he pretty much said was that we’re gonna get an opportunity. It’s going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity. And I think it was two days later, the coach from [the Academy of Art] randomly called me.”
At the Academy of Art, Ajomale has accumulated numerous honors and broken multiple records. Head coach Kevin LaSure thinks he might be the most decorated track athlete in Division II history.
A nine-time NCAA Division II national champion, Ajomale has won both indoor Athlete of the Year and the outdoor Athlete of the Year. He’s a two-time PacWest Men’s Track Athlete of the Year and a 35-time NCAA DII West All-Region athlete, and a three-time Division II West Region Track Athlete of the Year, and that’s just the short list.
Ajomale has taken his successes and trials to his own podcast, where he shares poetry, motivational stories and his own track experiences. The idea, which started out as a class assignment, primarily came from the questions he received on social media from up-and-coming athletes and was inspired by his Christian faith.
“It just kind of dawned on me that I can share some experience,” Ajomale said. “… A lot of the time when I get asked about those, you know deep life questions … I fall back on just let God take the wheel.”
Sometimes his podcasts are just fun. He once edited an audio clip together that made it sound like he was having a conversation with Morgan Freeman, who was reading Justin Beiber’s “Love Yourself.”
The Urban Knights’ competition underestimates the art school kids, Ajomale’s teammate Christian Carter said. Last January at a meet against the University of Washington, Carter saw his friend take the baton in the 4x400m relay. Ajomale trailed behind his opponent, whom Carter estimated was 6-foot-3, 200 pounds.
“Bolade’s coming faster and faster and I’m just like, ‘Oh my goodness he might just do this,’” Carter said.
As Ajomale gained on his competitor, he did something surprising. Instead of passing him on the outside lane, he cut inside to pull ahead of the Washington runner and win the race by 1.01 seconds.
“It was like watching a chihuahua moving a pitbull out of the way,” Carter said.
At 5-foot-11, Ajomale is strong but slender. LaSure said his humility can disguise his talent when he isn’t racing.
“If you came out to practice or you come to a meet, a lot of times until you see him a run you don’t know that that’s Bolade because he’s just another one of the guys out there on the track,” LaSure said. “He doesn’t let the fact that he’s accomplished so much go to his head.”
After redshirting his freshman year at the Academy of Art, Ajomale was considering leaving the university. But a change in coaching, switching to a different academic program and becoming an Olympian prompted him to reevaluate. He decided to stay.
Although he will officially graduate at the end of May, LaSure will continue helping Ajomale train for the many important competitions that remain including the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, the Canadian Track and Field Championships, the World Championships and the Pan American Games. All the while, he’ll be continuing to make a name for himself and pursue his goal to make it back to the Olympics in 2020.
“My mindset has to be different,” Ajomale said. “I have to have an Olympic medal type of mindset.”