Look at the roster of track-and-field athletes at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, a suburb of Nashville in the southern United States, and you will notice there are more Africans than Americans.
They come from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. Middle Tennessee assistant coach Andrew Owusu, who is from Ghana, credits legendary head coach Dean Hayes for the diverse body of student athletes.
“Coach Hayes actually has a long history of recruiting international athletes,” Owusu says with a smile, so Middle Tennessee’s sports teams are a mix of U.S. athletes and ones from other countries.
The 44-year-old assistant coach, a former triple jumper and long jumper, represented Ghana in both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. He’s now coaching two Ghanaians from Middle Tennessee at the Rio Olympics, as one of three coaches for the Ghana Olympic track-and-field team.
‘We care about them’
“I’ve had a little bit of criticism, from folks saying, ‘Oh, why Middle Tennessee?’ … And I say, ‘Well, because we care about them.’ We care about them beyond sports,” Owusu said.
The two Middle Tennessee athletes at the Rio Olympics are sprinter Janet Amponsah, 23, a junior, and John Ampomah, 26, a graduating senior, who specializes in the javelin throw.
Both Ampomah and Amponsah expressed their appreciation for being able to get a good education in the United States while pursuing their athletic careers.
Ampomah is majoring in criminal justice. He also has studied coaching because he hopes to help other aspiring Ghanaian athletes, and he is the captain of Ghana’s athletics team in Rio.
He said he learned a lot from Hayes while at Middle Tennessee, just as other international students before him did.
“I know what he did for them. I know they became great. They became Olympians, and I knew if I went there, I could also become an Olympian,” Ampomah said.
Amposah said Hayes and his entire staff, including Owusu, made them feel like family.
“The coaches are so nice to the athletes, so whenever I go back home [to Ghana], I talk to other top athletes and suggest they come,” she said. “Hayes is a father to us. That’s why I would say a lot of Africans are there.”