The Things On Which Dreams Are Made

After an earlier rain storm, the afternoon sun poked through the clouds at the track stadium in Sapele, Nigeria, the site of the 2016 Nigerian Olympic Trials. The 400m mens finalists approached the starting blocks as the crowd stirred with anticipation. Paul Dedewo knelt down in lane four, exhaling deeply as he placed his hands on the edge of the starting line. One race remained. One last opportunity to hit the qualifying time that would allow him to compete at the Rio Summer Olympics. Years of intense training would culminate in the next 45 seconds. If he was on the right side of 45.40s, he would claim his place among the world’s elite. If he was was one one-hundredth of a second too slow, his Olympic dreams would vanish. “Runner’s on your mark,” the starter shouted. “Get set.” The athletes coiled their legs into position, bracing for the gun. With a puff of smoke and a reverberating bang, Paul sprang into motion.

Every four years, thousands of amateur athletes dream of competing in the Olympics games. Runners, gymnasts, swimmers, and more spend years toiling in obscurity, honing their skill, waiting for a chance to show the world that they’re the best. This essay traces the dream of one Olympic hopeful, Paul Dedewo, as he trained for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Planting the Seed

Everyone’s born with dreams. A child dreams of being an astronaut, or a doctor, or maybe even the president of the United States. It’s cute, and adults love encouraging children to think of the big things they could be when they grow up. But by high school, dreams aren’t as en vogue. We encourage these same kids, now teenagers, to realign their expectations, to think more practically about their lives. “You’re just average” the message gets reinforced, “and the sooner you accept that and get on with life, the better off you’ll be.” But for some people, it’s the opposite; as they grow older dreams they never thought of before open up, and the miraculous somehow becomes attainable.

Paul Dedewo knows the moment he started dreaming of running in the Olympics. It was in 2008, as 17-year-old Paul watched Usain Bolt fly onto the worldwide stage at the Beijing Olympics, winning three gold medals with his electric speed, stealing everyone’s attention with his easy grin and exciting celebrations. Up to this point, Paul had been on the outside of the track circle looking in. His parents moved to the Bronx in New York City from Nigeria in the early 1980s, not looking for Olympic dreams for their young family, but simpler ones of opportunity and stability. The co-youngest of seven children, Paul grew up naturally clumsy and uncoordinated. He didn’t have the eye-hand coordination to excel in the typical sports, and thus didn’t get plugged into athletics. 

During his freshman year of high school, Paul did go to the information meeting for the track team. He walked in and sat at the back of the room. Soon, the room filled with muscular and athletic guys, guys way beyond who Paul felt he could compete with. And so he walked out, his track career over before it had even begun. This isn’t how the story of someone with Olympic aspirations typically starts.

Flickers of Hope

But three years later, just months before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the regret of walking out of that meeting still gnawed at Paul. So, towards the end of the track season his junior year, Paul approached the track coach about joining the team; he wanted to run the 100 meter dash. The coach said yes to the first part, but after eyeing this scrawny junior, stuck him with the distance runners. That summer, Paul watched Usain Bolt electrify the world, himself only having run a handful of 800s, and even then, he never finished higher than 36th place.

The fall of his senior year, equipped with his newfound dreams, Paul played the part of a distance runner and dutifully ran cross country. More races, more mediocre results. That winter though, during indoor track, an opportunity opened. The best sprinter for Paul’s high school tore his hamstring. This was a blow to the team’s chances of winning the conference meet, but it left a vacancy on the 4X400 relay. After the coaches tried several other guys, the assistant coach convinced the head coach to give Paul a chance. In his first relay race, Paul ran a 55.9 split; not great, but fast enough to get a second look. Paul kept running, and his split times kept dropping, first to 53.2, then to 51.9, and all the way down to 51.1 at the indoor city championship. As Paul entered outdoor track season, he was regarded as a rising star, with the potential get even faster.

To reach his dreams, and to make up for lost time, Paul woke up at 6 A.M. every morning to train on his own before joining the team for afternoon workouts. At first this helped, and Paul ran a 50.44 time in the 400m, the fastest in the city that spring. But soon, the extra training caught up with him. He developed overuse injuries, which caused him to adjust his stride. This adjustment caused a hip injury, which effectively ended his senior season, taking away his opportunity to audition for a track scholarship. With no viable scholarship offers, Paul chose to run track at City College, a small Division III school with a mediocre program that was inexpensive and close to home. Paul’s big dreams again looked improbable. 

After a freshman year of steady improvement, Paul burst onto his conference track scene during his sophomore year. Paul began to tap into his unrealized potential, and at the conference championship he won the 110m and 400m hurdles, 200m and 400m dashes, and the 4X400 relay. Those five first place finishes led his team to the championship, giving Paul a taste of being the hero. Despite these achievements, Paul knew he was in a tiny pond, and that guys his age ran 400s that were three seconds faster than his. This drove Paul to skip his summer rest period and to train all the more with the goal of reaching his dreams.

As Paul stepped back onto the track that fall, something wasn’t right. Every step brought a painful crunching in his knee. An MRI confirmed what his body foretold, Paul’s meniscus was torn and he needed surgery. The surgery was a success, but required six months of rest and rehab. When spring came, Paul’s knee had healed, but new pains started. He had another MRI and found out that the cartilage around his pubic bone was inflamed. This kept him out of outdoor track his junior year, but even as it improved, he started to suffer from sciatica, an inflammation of the sciatic nerve, a major nerve in your leg. With sciatica, every time Paul ran his leg became numb. This continued through his senior year, costing Paul the ability to run in both the indoor and outdoor track season. And after those setbacks, Paul did what was reasonable: he stopped running and he stopped dreaming, betrayed by his injury-prone body and his need to get a real job.

Dreams Resurrected

A year later Paul received a phone call from his older sister; a new sprint coach had joined the gym that she worked at and she wanted Paul to meet him. A week later Paul met Radenko, a 6’5” former swimmer for Serbia, who now sought to train elite athletes. Paul went through the equivalent of a physical interview, as Radenko tested every area of Paul’s strength and speed. At the culmination of the process, Radenko breathed life into Paul's ashed-over dreams: “You have the ability to be special!” He later added, “Someday Paul, you have the potential to set a world record!”

And so they began training together, trying to unearth Paul’s potential. After three months of training five days a week, Paul lowered his 400m time by a full second to 47.2, a drop that often requires years of work. Unfortunately, Paul tore his quad tendon, which shelved his training efforts for the next eight months. In 2015, Paul entered the track season completely healthy, ready to grow faster. Under Radenko’s coaching, Paul shed incredible amounts of time. He completely skipped 46 seconds, next clocking a 400m time of 45.99. Then, at the second-to-last meet of the year, Paul surprised everyone, running a 45.41 400m time, only one one-hundredth of a second slower than the auto-qualify time for the Rio Olympics. One one-hundredth of a second short of running in the Olympics! Paul, the guy who couldn’t convince his high school coach to let him be a sprinter six years earlier, was now the 56th fastest 400m runner in the world! The initial disappointment at missing the Olympic standard by such a minuscule margin was reduced by the knowledge that Paul had the entire 2016 season to shave .01 of a second off of his time. Since he had lowered his time by three seconds over the last two years, this seemed quite doable. Paul’s Olympic dreams were blazing.

The Final Stretch

Paul entered the 2016 track season with one goal: to hit 45.40 and to make it to Rio. With that goal, Paul engaged in another year of the grueling lifestyle that is Olympic training. Through all of his training, Paul has worked a full time job. He leaves work at 5pm every night to train through the evening, arriving home after 11pm, exhausted, with just enough time to eat and sleep in order to get up the next day and do it all over again. 

Paul began training in January this year, as the Rio Olympics loomed seven months away. His training started smoothly, and he was hopeful that he could make it through a season injury-free. In February, however, he began feeling a slight pain whenever he put any weight on his left foot. Paul cut all of the running from his training, hoping that the pain would go away. Despite the reduced workload, his pain continued to grow, culminating in him being shut down in March. He waited for two weeks while his insurance approved an MRI. When the MRI returned, the podiatrist diagnosed Paul with a stress fracture in one of his metatarsals. Paul spent the next four weeks in a walking boot, losing valuable training time. But even after he was cleared to take off the boot, the pain persisted, and another MRI was ordered. A different doctor read this one, concluding that the earlier stress fracture was a misdiagnosis, and that it was only a blood vessel that crossed the bone in an unusual place. The second doctor felt that the pain was a result of a nerve being pinched somewhere in his foot. While this might seem like better news than a broken bone, nerve injuries have no ready-made solutions. A bone will heal according to a timetable, but nerve inflammation is a more fickle ailment. Fortunately, Paul’s pain began to subside in May, and he was able to resume training. In May, Paul ran a 45.57, which while still off the qualifying time by thirteen hundredths, put him in a good position for the Nigerian Olympic Trials in July.

During the first week of June, with the Olympic Trials less than a month away, Paul began to experience sharp pain in his knee when he ran. At first, he tried to run through it, but the pain continued to build until he could barely walk. Another MRI, his fifth of the year, revealed a piece of torn cartilage floating in his knee. This was devastating news, as surgery would require six weeks of recuperation. But at his current state, if Paul could hardly walk, how could he hope to run? The weeks leading up to the Nigerian Olympic Trials were hard ones, full of soul-searching questions: why is my body so injury-prone? How did the doctor misdiagnosis a stress fracture? Why did I miss the qualifying time by .01 last year? It’s not easy seeing a dream that you’ve worked so hard to achieve slip out of your hands at the last possible moment. Paul went to physical therapy every morning before work, trying to reduce the swelling and pain. As the date neared for the trials, the pain lessened some, and Paul decided to go to Nigeria to give it one last shot.

Paul’s plane touched down in Lagos, the capital city of Nigeria, bringing him to the country of his heritage for the first time. A truck filled with armed soldiers escorted the athletes to Sapele, the site of the trials, tucked seven hours away in the heart of the country. After arriving, Paul began working out on the track, hoping he could run through the pain and hit the qualifying time. As the day of the 400m prelims arrived, Paul managed to fight through and win his heat. He ran a 45.79, which while still being .39 off of the qualifying time, resuscitated a glimmer of hope for the Olympics.

A light rain fell on the morning of Paul’s last chance to make the Olympics. The sun came out, and the time came for the 400m finals. The young boys from the neighboring villages that Paul had befriended were lined up on the edge of the fence, rooting for their Usain Bolt. Paul crouched in his blocks, with one last chance to seize a spot in the Olympics. One last race. One final opportunity. The starter’s arm went up and the gun went BANG.

BANG, BANG. The startling noise echoed through the stadium. The crowd gasped, waiting to see who’d false started. The runner was Paul. The dream was over. And just like that, the Olympics were gone.

— Afterword —

I wrote this because I believe stories like Paul’s are the true Olympics. Yes, Michael Phelps and Simone Biles and Usain Bolt are the Olympics, too, but those are the money Olympics, where everyone trains full-time surrounded by the best that money can buy: the best equipment, coaches, medical care, and so on. But the real Olympics is the guy who gets up at 5am every day to practice his fencing, before slinging boxes at UPS for eight hours. It’s the woman who spends her evenings rowing, while trying to balance work and life and kids. The real Olympics are the thousands of athletes throughout the world who work so hard, but for different reasons come up just a little bit short. I wanted to tell Paul’s story because I want their story to be heard. The story that you can and should dream big, but that even if you do come up short, that that doesn’t mean you should never have dreamed. Some people may say that Paul failed in his dream to make the Olympics, but how can being the 56th best in the world at something ever be seen as failure?

Earlier this week, Paul and I watched the 400m prelims, the race he could’ve been in. We watched guys run that he had beat, both time wise and head-to-head. Paul’s times would have put him in the middle of the pack, but since he never hit the qualifying time, he wasn’t able to go. It was one of those evenings where all you can is smile and shake your head. Paul was so close; if only one of things that had gone wrong had turned out differently, Paul could’ve been there. But God chose a different path for Paul, even if that is hard to understand.