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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Feature: Sanu Jallow’s Journey from Gambia to the US, to the 800m

It wasn’t West Mecklenburg junior Sanu Jallow’s idea to try her hand at the 800 meters on a spring day during her freshman year of high school — she was somewhat forced into it by her coach Dee Lockhart.

“I will never forget the day he put me in it,” Jallow said.

The young sprinter competing for Phillip O. Berry at the time had no experience at the distance. But it’s just two laps — how hard could it be? Jallow recalls taking the race out at an insanely hot pace, blazing through the first lap like she was sprinting the 400 meters, a race she had more experience in at the time.

The lack of expertise in the event made for the amateur mistake — going out too fast without settling into a quick yet comfortable pace.

Then, the agonizing pain set in.

Jallow remembers struggling to the finish line after falling off of the quick pace she set on the first lap — she completely flamed out.

Never again, Jallow remembered thinking.

“From there, I was like, ‘I do not want to do this,'” Jallow said.

Perhaps if a young Jallow had known that two years later she would become one of the top 800m runners in the nation, she wouldn’t have written off the event quite so quickly.

A 2:08.28 personal best in the event recorded at the NCRunners Twilight event on May 29 puts Jallow at NC No. 2 and US No. 21 on the season, her first time dipping under the 2:10 mark. And with the North Carolina Class 4A Outdoor State Championships happening this coming weekend at North Carolina A&T’s Aggie Stadium, Jallow has her eyes set on winning an 800m title and breaking the state record — a long-standing mark of 2:06.66 set by Mackenzie Pierce of Forsyth Country Day in 2003.

But growing up, Jallow never imagined becoming a great high school track and field athlete, let alone finding a sport and passion to pursue. She grew up in the African country of Gambia before coming to the United States at the age of nine, leaving behind her mother and entering a new atmosphere where she didn’t understand the culture, language, and society. She didn’t start running track until middle school and didn’t truly train for the sport until high school.

Jallow’s perseverance through unique and challenging circumstances at a young age makes her rise to acclaim all the more impressive and inspiring.

“A lot of journeys aren’t the same,” Lockhart said.

Growing up in the small country of Gambia on Africa’s west coast, Jallow had a not-so-average childhood, raised in a single parent household by her mother who did what any parent does, instilling character and values in hopes that Jallow would mature to become well-rounded. She said she enjoyed life in Gambia, despite some of the many challenges of living in a less developed country.

“It was good, for the most part,” Jallow said. “It was a lot of freedom. I was the only child, so basically my mom raised me to be the best person I could.”

For Jallow, Gambian life was dramatically different from what she became accustomed to in the U.S., everything from the education system to basic way of life. Though Gambia has had a somewhat established political system and improved economic conditions since the 1990s, it still remains a country riddled by poverty, lack of healthcare and illiteracy. Lack of resources, technology, and modern education made learning and growing as a young girl all the more difficult.

“We didn’t have the classes that are [in the U.S.] and we didn’t have the teachers that are [in the U.S.], so it was kind of difficult learning English and trying to understand what was going on at the school because we didn’t have the technology or the right teachers to help us understand.”

But one activity has always remained a constant in her life: running. Some of Jallow’s fondest memories growing up in Gambia involve running around and racing her local friends and neighbors.

“I ran a lot and did a lot of activities,” Jallow said. “It was for fun, just running around with other kids. I didn’t really think much of it at the time.”

But at the age of nine, her life took a somewhat unexpected turn.

Jallow’s father — who resided in the U.S. —  decided to enter her life for the first time. He traveled to Gambia and hoped to bring her back with him to America, along with her four sisters that also resided elsewhere in Gambia, to offer them a better education. Despite never meeting or interacting with her father in the years prior, she faced no resentment toward his idea to move her to the U.S.

“Meeting my dad for the first time, it was shocking,” Jallow said. “It was different because I didn’t know him growing up. I just heard of him. Finally getting to meet him was a shocker.”

However, that meant leaving her dedicated mother behind in Gambia to pursue a new life of her own. That’s a lot for a nine-year-old to have on her plate.

Despite never meeting her father prior to that one visit, and the reality of having to separate from her mother, Jallow was filled with anticipation about the move to a new country.

“I was excited because I wanted to get a better education and I finally met my dad, so it was just trying to get to know him more and just trying to understand who he was,” she said. “But, I was also excited for the opportunity that was presented. I was really happy.”

Jallow packed up her belongings and flew with her sisters to Charlotte to live with her now-present father. What took her by surprise was the extreme culture shock she experienced. The American way of life and societal norms confused Jallow at first in comparison to the life she grew accustomed to in Gambia.

“There were things that I did in Africa that I couldn’t do here,” she said. “I couldn’t really stay out late as much as I wanted to. I couldn’t just roam around to other people’s houses.”

That’s not to mention the severe language and learning gaps that Jallow had to bridge. She came to North Carolina with little, if any, familiarity with the English language and hadn’t received traditional American education while living in Gambia.

“It was definitely challenging because people would talk and I wouldn’t understand what was going on,” Jallow said. “It was hard for me to tell them, ‘I don’t understand’ because I couldn’t speak English. I just sat there looking at people.”

She almost immediately went into third grade when she moved to Charlotte and began taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at school to help her grasp a better understanding of the language and educational curriculum.

But Jallow felt quite alone at times, as making friends proved difficult due to the language barrier between her and her classmates. That’s not to mention the arduous task of growing accustomed to the common subjects taught in school, from elementary math to reading and writing English.

Thanks to a year and a half of hard work in school, Jallow slowly began to learn and speak English.

“It was like a baby trying to take its first steps,” she said. “So it was like you had to take it step by step to try to learn all over again.”

Years went by, and Jallow enjoyed her new life in the U.S., despite the heartbreak of leaving her mother behind. She enjoyed some of the habits and hobbies she pursued in Gambia, always remaining active and playing sports like soccer. But in middle school, with the encouragement of people around her and her fond memories running with friends as a child in Africa, she took a strong interest in track and field.

“When I was in middle school, I was experiencing different sports, so when I got to track, a lot of people were telling me, ‘Oh, you’re a good runner,’ Jallow said. “It was just a comfort zone for me.”

She tried out for the Phillip O. Berry track and field team, coached by Jann Johnson-Lockhart, as a high school freshman. Almost immediately, Johnson-Lockhart noticed Jallow’s bubbly personality and curiosity about the sport, which signaled that she had the potential to grow quickly as an athlete.

“She just talked my head off,” Johnson-Lockhart said. “She did more talking than she did practicing. I came home and I told my husband, ‘There’s a kid here, she has a lot of potential.’ I said, ‘She drives me insane. She asks a thousand questions. She wants to talk about running all day.’ I said, ‘She never gets tired.'”

The talkative Jallow and dedicated Johnson-Lockhart soon developed a mutual respect. Focusing mainly on sprint events as an inexperienced freshman, Jallow learned quickly in hopes of improving and impressing her new role model and coach.

“We formed a really close bond and from that bond, her drive was different,” Johnson-Lockhart said. “It was as if she was more concerned about pleasing me. I think initially she was running for me and I told her one day ‘You don’t run for me, you run for you.'”

Jallow and Johnson-Lockhart formed a strong mother-daughter bond of sorts — with her biological mother back in Gambia, Jallow saw Johnson-Lockhart as both a coach and motherly figure to train and grow with.

“I formed a good relationship with her family and they saw that she had a close knit [relationship] with us,” Johnson-Lockhart said. “Because her mom was so far away, her dad was fine with us having that motherly-daughter bond.”

Jallow later competed during the summer for the Charlotte Panthers track club that was led in part by Lockhart. By that point, she was becoming a part of the family.

Come sophomore year, Jallow spent more time with her coaches and their family than she did with her own. It was then that her father agreed that it may be in her best interest to move in with the Lockhart family to allow her to pursue success at the highest levels of high school track and field.

“The family just felt like it would be good for her to come up under our wing full time,” Lockhart said. “Just kind of take off under your coaches and live with them and see if it can take you to the next level.”

Jallow fully embraced her new family and supported the move whole-heartedly. Often, she refers to her coaches as her second mom and dad.

“I was really grateful because not a lot of people get to be presented with this opportunity and I was one of the lucky ones who had not one, but two great coaches and parents to take me under their wing and try to get to the next level,” Jallow said.

But on the track, the Lockhart couple pushes Jallow.

A very specific training regimen developed by the two coaches helps Jallow improve as an all-around runner and athlete. Even on Sundays, one can find Jallow out on the track or in the gym working on her technique and fitness.

Most days, she runs a timed mile to begin her practice. The process is simple — either make the time that Johnson-Lockhart has designated for her, or she has to run another timed mile after her completed workout. For her workouts, Jallow sticks to a mixture of speed and endurance training, perfect for a mid-distance racer.

“We have rigorous training that she has to do in order to perform so well and I think she keeps a positive attitude going into it,” Lockhart said.

From there, she quickly began to make a name for herself as one of North Carolina’s most talented high school track athletes. A fifth-place finish in the 300m at the 2019 North Carolina Class 4A Indoor State Championships as a freshman at Phillip O. Berry solidified her place among the best sprinters in the state.

Perhaps one of Jallow’s greatest feats — running 1:15.00 in the 500-meters to win the state title at the 2020 Class 4A Indoor State Championships after contributing an important leg on Phillip O. Berry’s state championship-winning 4x800m team — showed others that she had the mixture of speed and endurance to win at the highest level.

Then when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down athletic competition in March of 2020, Jallow dedicated herself to lifting to gain more power to help her at the sprint and mid-distance events come time for the resumption of high school athletics.

Jallow returned to competition in late February — still coached by the Lockhart family but now competing for West Mecklenburg — for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, debuting with a 2:17.79 in the 800-meters at the adidas Indoor Nationals. That was just the beginning of her strong 2021 upward trajectory.

She dropped her 800m time by over nine seconds in the span of three months. She recorded new personal bests in the 100m (11.88), 200m (24.16) and 400m (53.71). Her 400m personal best ranks higher in the national rankings than her 800m time from this season, putting her at US No. 14.

Breaking 2:10 for the first time back in May marked the culmination of all her hard work. In a tight race with Highland Tech junior standout Lauren Tolbert, she finished second, but couldn’t have cared less about the place.

Her goal for this outdoor season was to dip under 2:10 — she is a big believer in goal-setting to continually push herself — and she had finally accomplished that feat.

“I was just really shocked,” Jallow said. “At the moment, I wasn’t thinking about the place. I was just very happy and excited because I finally broke 2:10, which was a goal me and my dad had set, and it came to reality. I was just really happy that I could see it happen.”

For her coaches and parental figures, watching both Jallow and Tolbert push each other to new personal bests was exciting to witness.

“I knew at some point based on how they kept pushing each other, her and Lauren Tolbert, that they were ready to hit their time,” Lockhart said.

Beyond her success at the 800m, Jallow quickly developed into a lethal quadruple-threat, as witnessed at the So Meck 8 Conference Championships on a sweltering June afternoon.

Jallow won the 100-meters in dominant fashion to get off to a hot start. Forty-five minutes later she took the track again to win the 400-meters. Then 15 minutes later she finished first in the 800-meters, her signature event. If that wasn’t enough, she finished off her conference meet performance with a 200-meter championship.

It is an event quadruple that is most uncommon and not typically attempted by track and field athletes, let alone on a nearly 90-degree afternoon.

“I’ve been training really hard for this and I just feel like it was just time to trust the process and just believe in the training and the process and my coaches and parents,” Jallow said after the conference championships.

Jallow won’t attempt the quadruple at this weekend’s Class 4A state meet, but will look to bring home two individual titles in the 100-meters and 800-meters. She still has her eye on that elusive 800m state record, something she said she confidently believes she can attain.

Beyond the state championships, Jallow has already grabbed the attention of many NCAA Division I track and field programs, including Clemson, Alabama, Princeton and many in-state schools, to name a few.

She says she seeks a future collegiate program where she can both pursue a successful college running career and a valuable education, the main reason she came to America in the first place as a young girl.

And who knows, with the progression she has made in the sport in just three years, Jallow could still have more potential to unlock in the future. Lockhart believes Jallow has the potential to succeed at the collegiate level and potentially at the professional level as well.

“Most of all, she has such a wonderful bubbly personality that I could see her excelling in any college program and possibly even have a shot at making it to the Olympics as well,” Lockhart said.

Perhaps, Jallow hopes, her success in track and field could potentially help her bring her mother to the U.S. to reunite with her for the first time since she left her life in Gambia behind.

Though she and her mother continually FaceTime on a regular basis, Jallow dreams of the day that her mother can come to America and watch her now teenage daughter race and succeed on the track and in life.

“I would like to bring my mom over here so that she can see me perform in the future and just be able to be with her finally again,” she said.

A lot has changed for Jallow over the span of almost eight years — her way of living, education, family environment and more. Even since her brutal introduction to the grueling 800m as a freshman, she’s matured into a seasoned, competitive athlete that now runs the two-lap with seeming ease.

And she doesn’t just love running because she’s good at it — it’s a sport that has given her the space to race, grow, and cope with life’s obstacles thrown her way.

“Running has always been a way for me to cope with things, clear my head,” she said. “My coaches have motivated me, Coach Jann and Coach Lockhart, and I just wanted to make my parents proud and show other other people that anything you put your mind to is possible and that nothing is too far to reach.”

Jallow experienced a bittersweet departure when she decided to leave her mother in her home country to live in a country she had never been to before. She experienced isolation as a young African immigrant in elementary school striving to learn English in the midst of a new, confusing life.

She experienced love and passion as she found a sport she excelled at and could use as a way to manage her emotions from the past. Many don’t experience all of those moments within a lifetime, let alone during a single childhood.

But no matter where track and field takes her, Jallow will always remember the journey to success that began as just a young girl running for fun with friends in the streets of Gambia.

“I feel like it was a blessing,” she said. “It was meant to happen this way. You’ve got to go through the hard things to be able to shine.”

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