Originally published June 9, 2015. MTSU’s John Ampomah will be competing at the Rio Olympics for his native Ghana.
When Middle Tennessee State University’s John Ampomah returns to Murfreesboro it will be with another medal in the javelin.
Ampomah, who had the nation’s best toss this outdoor season, registering 267 feet, 7 inches at the Penn Relays in April, finished second Wednesday at the the NCAA Track and Field National Championships in Eugene, Ore., with a throw of 253-0. But still wasn’t outdone. Oregon’s Sam Crouser won with a throw of 253-9, short of Ampomah’s season best.
The throws are especially impressive considering how Ampomah landed in Tennessee.
He grew up in Accra, Ghana, attended Juaben Senior High School and started throwing the shot put, discus and javelin when he was in the ninth grade.
“We don’t have the facilities and we don’t develop children (to eventually become athletes) when they are young,” Ampomah said of his African home. “I would sometimes throw a stick to practice because there was only one or two javelins. There was no way another javelin was going to be available unless coach preformed some sort of magic.”
So imagine the facilities and equipment available in the mid-1970s, when John Dodoo was a high-schooler in Ghana. But blessed with an opportunity, Dodoo went to Middle Tennessee State in 1977 to get an education and compete in track and field. Under the tutelage of coach Dean Hayes, Dodoo and his teammates in the long jump and triple jump became known nationally as the Grasshopper Gang because of their success.
Hayes tried to get Dodoo’s cousin, Francis, another aspiring jumper, to attend Middle Tennessee too. While it didn’t happen, Hayes developed a close relationship with Francis, who made Ghana’s Olympic Team in the triple jump and participated in the 1984 and 1996 Olympics.
“When he got out of college, I trained him when he was jumping on his own for his country,” said Hayes. “He eventually used my (teaching) program.”
After starting a track and field development program in Ghana, Francis asked Hayes to help kids come to the United States. He would tell Hayes of athletes willing to come to America and they would work together to get athletes enrolled in junior college since Ghanaians don’t have an SAT score and couldn’t enroll at a Division I school. After one semester at junior college, the athletes would transfer to an NAIA school. The NAIA allows athletes who stay for one year to transfer to Division I without sitting out a year.
Then, finally, they arrived at Hayes’ doorstep.
Francis, who is now the president of the Ghana Olympic Committee, and Hayes have been at this for more than 30 years.
“It is a complicated process but that’s the game,” Hayes said. “They all want to go Division I, the highest level of competition if they can. The end objective is to get in the World Championships and the Olympics.”
Ampomah’s path to Murfreesboro started in 2013 in Chanute, Kan. There he attended Neosho County Community College. A testament to Ghana’s developmental program, Ampomah was the 2013 NJCAA national champion in javelin. His throw of 235-9 was 10 feet longer than the second-place finisher. The following school year Ampomah was in Marshall, Texas, at NAIA Wiley College and again he was a national champion. At the 2014 NAIA national championships no one bested Ampomah’s 244-1.
Being an NJCAA and NAIA national champion and NCAA runner-up as a junior places him in elite territory. He’s one of Ghana’s greatest collegiate track athletes.
“Everything I needed was right here (at MTSU),” Ampomah said. “The facilities, the coaches. I fully took advantage of it. If you can’t be good under Coach Hayes, I don’t think you can be good under any coach.”
If Ampomah returns to Ghana this summer, it will be with an NCAA silver medal around his neck.