July 17, 2012
Queens, N.Y. - Phobay Kutu-Akoi, a 2009 St. John's graduate, has gone through an amazing personal and athletic journey, and on July 27th it all culminates with a celebration of her roots as she will serve as the official flag-bearer for her home country of Liberia at the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Kutu-Akoi qualified for the Olympics with an 11.37 second time in the 100-meter dash at the Bobcat Classic in San Marcos, Texas on April 28th. The Liberian native has run in plenty of big races such as the IAAF World Championships, BIG EAST Championships and the African Trials but nothing will quite compare to the grandeur and experience of the Olympic Games.
"I don't know what the experience will be like on the day but I'm sure I'm going to cry a lot," said Kutu-Akoi. "I'm going to make the best out of it and I'll do my best to represent my country, my family, St. John's and just have fun with it."
As she enters the Olympic Stadium in London, Kutu-Akoi will be long way from her hometown of Monrovia, Liberia but the flag she carries represents her dedication and commitment to herself and country. The Liberia that Kutu-Akoi was born into was frequently embattled with civil wars which eventually forced her and her family to immigrate to the United States. It would have been very easy for Kutu-Akoi to turn the page on that part of her life, but she is quick to point out that her Liberian roots have greatly shaped the athlete she has become.
"I wear that uniform so proudly. Every time I put it on, it brings me back to where I came from," said Kutu-Akoi. "When we moved from Liberia, it was December of 1999, and there weren't any wars going on at the time but there were previous civil wars that I had experienced. It was traumatizing but when you are younger you don't really realize what's going on, you just go through it to survive. My parents did the best job they could of keeping us away from as much trauma as possible. A lot of times during the civil wars you'd have to stop going to school for two or three months as you'd wait for things to cool down. But I love my country. I had a really great childhood. I couldn't see myself representing any other country and I'm really excited. This has been a dream of mine all along."
Her family eventually settled in Silver Spring, Md. where she enrolled in elementary school. Kutu-Akoi began her athletic career but wasn't heavily recruited coming out of high school. She eventually came to St. John's during a period of rebuilding among the sprinters in the track & field program. During her freshman year, Kutu-Akoi ran a seasonal-best time of 12.13 seconds that showed promise but put her a considerable distance behind the premier runners in the conference.
At the beginning of Kutu-Akoi's sophomore year, St. John's hired current sprints coach Yvonne Harrison. Kutu-Akoi credits Coach Harrison with helping push her career to the next level and still talks on the phone regularly with her former coach. Kutu-Akoi not only transformed her training regimen that year but also began meeting with Mark Armiento who provided sports psychology and counseling services to St. John's athletes. During these meetings, Kutu-Akoi helped improve her mental approach to running by finding peace in both her personal and athletic lives. Leading up to the Olympics, Armiento began working with Kutu-Akoi once again as she prepares for the challenging and exciting experience of the London Games.
"When Coach Harrison came in I was a sophomore, we didn't have a sprint coach before that and I was injured my freshman year," said Kutu-Akoi. "The whole sprint program was in a rebuilding state. She turned the whole program around and by the time I graduated it was totally different. She helped us not only through coaching but also spiritually. She would always tell us if we worked hard we could get to where we were going. I can't imagine the experience without her. My senior year, everything came together, she was the one who pushed me to go on and run for my country."
During that senior season, Kutu-Akoi became both the St. John's and Liberian record holder in the 100-meter dash when she ran an 11.52 second time at 2009 Metropolitan Championships. She was also the runner-up in the 100-meter dash at the BIG EAST Championships and was part of the 4x100-meter relay team that set another St. John's record.
"I always knew she had the work ethic to become a great sprinter," said Harrison. "She always trained exceptionally well and was committed to getting better. You could always see the signs of tenacity and hard work."
Kutu-Akoi still keeps close connection to St. John's despite the fact that she trains in Dallas, Texas. She often calls current student-athletes such as Rikka Lovely and Priscilla Frederick who are dealing with a lot of the same adversities that Kutu-Akoi came across and conquered during her career.
"She was a great kid to work with and constantly worked hard throughout her career at St. John's," said head track & field coach Jim Hurt. "We are very proud of her and how far she has come as an athlete and person. It makes our program feel very good to have another athlete participating at the top levels of world competition."
Now Kutu-Akoi will be the ninth Olympian in St. John's track & field history and the first female participant since Kim Thomas who was unable to compete at the boycotted 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow.
Kutu-Akoi has been a model member of the St. John's track & field community and come July 26th the result of her hard work and tenacity will be on display for the entire world to see.
Follow Kutu-Akoi the track & field program through RedStormSports.com and on Twitter (@STJ_Track_XC) for updates on Frederick's performance at the U.S. Olympic Trials through the weekend.