Mooseheart’s Oumaru Abdulahi set a high jump record at the Mooseheart Relays on May 5, but you would never have guessed it by looking at the junior in the moments after the competition was over.
Abdulahi walked to the edge of the Mooseheart end zone where a cheering section had gathered. Visibly dejected, the junior sat down, put his back to the ground and covered his face with a shirt — and stayed that way for several minutes.
Abdulahi had won the event with a meet-record jump of 6 feet, 8 inches – a mark good enough to earn him the 1A state title last May – but he missed three attempts at clearing 6-10.
The 5-foot-8 high jumper has set lofty goals, on the track and beyond.
“This season I expected to hit that seven-foot mark. So I’m definitely disappointed, especially getting 6-8, that’s something I did last year,” Abdulahi said after the Mooseheart Relays. “But I know that I’m going to work hard to get my goals.”
Abdulahi’s journey to a state championship stretches from the west coast of Africa to eastern Iowa to Mooseheart, where he came at age 7 to start the second grade.
Abdulahi was born in Sierra Leone and lived in Liberia until he was 4. After his mother died, his family fled the war-torn country and moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, only to find their neighborhood riddled with violence and gangs.
His father, Gassimu, was searching for a way to protect his children when his girlfriend at the time discovered Mooseheart. Abdulahi was the third of his family to go there, following his brother Karidu and sister Manseray.
He is not sure whether he would even be attending high school, let alone excelling in track meets, if he had not been sent to Mooseheart 10 years ago.
“In my old neighborhood, I wouldn’t be able to think that I could graduate. I probably would have been involved with gangs and stuff like that,” Abdulahi said.
“I’m glad that I got the opportunity and I’m learning from this and taking full advantage of it.”
Mooseheart coach Curt Schlinkmann remembers the meet four or five years ago when he realized Abdulahi had special talent.
Schlinkmann was talking to his long-distance runners when someone told him Abdulahi was clearing six feet in the high jump.
“I was like, ‘No way,’ because he was only in middle school,” Schlinkmann said.
The Ramblers head coach dropped what he was doing and rushed over to the high jump mats to watch Abdulahi.
“From then on, he’s just gradually gotten better and better and a lot more confident in what he can do,” said Schlinkmann.
Abdulahi was successful at the high school level from the start. He finished third in the 1A state high jump finals as a freshman and then won the event as a sophomore.
He had to recover from off-season surgery before he could begin defending his state championship as a junior this spring.
A tailback on the Ramblers football team, Abdulahi suffered four dislocations of his left shoulder last fall. He decided to sit out basketball season and had shoulder surgery on Dec. 8.
His doctors said he would need at least three or four months of physical therapy but Abdulahi was back after two months and did not miss a single track competition. He set a new personal record with a jump of 6-10 at an indoor meet at Batavia earlier this spring.
“For me to bounce back like that and be able to compete at every meet without any problems with my shoulder, I think I’m really blessed for that,” Abdulahi said. “That just shows that I’m meant for something.”
Standing just 5-foot-8, Abdulahi succeeds in a sport most often dominated by athletes at least four or five inches taller.
“I’ve never seen anybody that size that high,” said Schlinkmann. “I never thought I’d see that or have an athlete who would be able to do that. It’s amazing.”
Abdulahi is often greeted with quizzical looks from tall high jumpers who wonder what he’s doing among the trees.
“It makes me want to prove that I can compete with them and even do better than them,” said Abdulahi. “I love their faces when they’re like, ‘Oh, he can jump, wow!’ ”
Rather than falling back on his background as an excuse, Abdulahi says he draws inspiration from it.
“I never let my family issues, my background bring me down,” said Abdulahi. “I just carry that with me, basically a chip on my shoulder, that I have to prove something.”
He hopes his track success will help other Mooseheart students realize they can accomplish great things, no matter what life has dealt them.
“No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, you can still be a good person, you can still do something in life. Don’t let that bring you down,” Abdulahi said.
Abdulahi hopes to attend college on an athletic scholarship and study theater. He is part of the newly founded Mooseheart drama program and is interested in playwriting and acting.
“If I end up doing acting, I want to be in comedies. That’s the kind of person I am,” said Abdulahi, who also writes poetry in his spare time.
Abdulahi was the first Ramblers track athlete to win a state title since 1958, but the impact he’s had on Mooseheart does not just come from the jumps he’s cleared, the touchdowns he’s scored or the baskets he’s made.
He is involved with the Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at Mooseheart and is the leader of the junior platoon. He has also taken on a leadership role on the track team. Schlinkmann describes him as a natural leader.
During the Mooseheart Relays, Abdulahi took breaks from his warm-ups to offer advice and words of encouragement to fellow Mooseheart high jumper Sam Strickland.
When he leaves Mooseheart after next year, Abdulahi hopes he is remembered as more than just a great athlete.
“I just don’t want to leave with people knowing me as the highest jumper,” said Abdulahi.
“I want to leave with people knowing that I want others to succeed. I want to impact the Mooseheart society as much as possible and have younger kids know what they’re supposed to do.”
I wrote this story for the Chicago Sun-Times, Aurora Beacon and yourseason.com. It appears here.