It had been 15 years, but Minnesota has another mens' outdoor track and field national champion.
Redshirt junior Obsa Ali became the first outdoor national champion for the Gophers men's track and field team since 2003 earlier this month. Ali ran the 3,000 meter steeplechase on June 8, breaking the school record and capturing his first national championship with a time of 8:32.23, at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.
Ali said he knew it was going to be a good day. Once he took the lead, he kept turning his head around because he wanted to be sure he was alone in first as he crossed the finish line for the title.
The 2018 first team All-American said he never imagined being a NCAA Champion. After that was realized, he said the feeling hadn't set in until he arrived back home.
“After crossing the finish line, I looked up and I couldn’t believe what had just happened,” Ali said. “I always wanted to be an All-American and I accomplished that, but to win an NCAA title... it never crossed my mind until a week before.”
After the first few laps, Ali said he was worried he might have held back too much in the race. Slowly but surely, Ali said he caught up to the runner in second place. He said by the time there were only 300 meters left, he had taken the lead and never looked back.
By winning the race, Ali qualified for the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa later this month, but will not participate. Until his victory, a Minnesota men's team's national championship drought had existed since Ali was in elementary school.
“Our last outdoor champion was Adam Steele in '03. These kinds of things don’t happen often,” men's track and field head coach Steve Plasencia said.
Ali didn't just win the national title in the steeplechase. His path to the national championship started at the Big Ten tournament, where finished in first place. He used that momentum to finish first at the NCAA West prelims and qualify for the national title.
While Ali ran his race in Oregon, he had many supporters rooting for him back home in Richfield, Minnesota.
"Everyone was excited, it was crazy," Ali said. "To be able to hear from everyone, my teachers from high school, my parents, my friends, my teammates — everyone was so excited."
The night of the run, the Richfield High School staff held a watch party to support him.
“Graduation happened that night, so after all of the teachers hosted a watch party to watch Obsa's race,” Jessica Okey, Ali’s high school counselor said. “It was like a Super Bowl viewing party.”
Ali’s former distance track coach Marty Huberty said he watched the race in Mankato, Minnesota, but the cross country community back in Richfield was excited.
“There were multiple watch parties. One had 12 to 14 people watching, and the other families were watching the race at a local pub,” Huberty said.
Huberty discovered Ali when he was playing soccer his sophomore year.
“I told the seniors that they had pretty fast times, but they pointed at the soccer field and told me that the fastest kid is right there,” Huberty said. “I went over and introduced myself, and when track came along asked him to run distance.”
Throughout their three years together, Huberty quickly found out that Ali cared more about the team than himself.
During his senior year, most knew that Ali was going to win the conference, according to Huberty. Instead of focusing on individual accolades, however, Ali asked Huberty how they could win the team championship. Two weeks before a conference meet, Ali requested that the training routine be changed to speed up the times of everyone else.
"Ali's time slowed down a bit, but it increased everyone else’s by 10 to 15 seconds, which was enough to claim the conference title," Huberty said. “He truly is Ob-some… not awesome, but Ob-some."
What makes Ali special is his ability to get everything done, Plasencia said of his time with Ali.
“You give [Ali] a workout or tell him to run on his own… and you never have to double-check on him. You know it’s been done,” Plasencia said.
Ali has no eligibility left in cross-country but has one year left in track and field. He plans to rest a bit, but then get right back to work.
“I’m going to take some time off and then get ready for indoor track,” Ali said.