Interview: Joseph Fahnbulleh Is The Fastest Man In The NCAA
Florida's Joseph Fahnbulleh put together thrilling finishes to win the 100 and 200 meters at the NCAA track and field championships to lead the Gators to the team title.
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This past weekend, Florida's Joseph Fahnbulleh won the 100 and 200 meters at the NCAA Track and Field Championships. He won the 100 meters in a personal best of 10 seconds. He won the 200 meters in 19.83 seconds, which is the fourth-fastest in collegiate history. Florida won the team title with 54 points. Last summer, Fahnbulleh competed for Liberia at the Tokyo Olympics. We touch on all of that, his roots as a distance runner in Minnesota, his goals for the World Championships and much more including your listener questions. He also addresses the internet coaches who still hate on his 100 meter start.
I’ve transcribed a few parts of the interview below, which have been edited lightly for clarity.
CITIUS MAG: How did the plan come together for the entire weekend. You were very vocal about wanting to do your part to win your teammates a championship ring so it’s two parts: Becoming a champion and being a team player.
JOSEPH FAHNBULLEH: Becoming a champion is a byproduct of you becoming a team player. Everyone to play a role and do their own part. My biggest thing was I wanted to win for y’all. I’m good because I have my ring from last year. I wanted to win for y’all and get them a ring. I took the relay more seriously than I take any other event because it’s not just me. It’s Dedrick (Vanover), Ty (Davis) and PJ (Austin). I take that very seriously. I said, ‘If you want to win, give me the stick in a good spot and I’m about to roll. I will catch anybody.’ We tried our best. There was a bump in the exchange between Dedrick and Tyler that created a little bit – if it wasn’t for that, we would’ve won. I can’t say that because USC won. I have to give credit where credit is due. Credit to USC but if we had to run it any other day, I’m walking anybody. I’m walking (Johnnie) Blockburger. I’m walking (Ashton) Allen. It doesn’t matter. Becoming a champion is more than just being a team player because you also have to lock into your individual events. Coming into the 100m, it was ‘I have nothing to lose.’ I got seventh last year. I was like, ‘I’m just going to listen to Coach (Mike Holloway) and do what he says.’
CITIUS MAG: How did you approach the 100m knowing where you fell on paper?
JOSEPH FAHNBULLEH: I approached the 100m as if everyone was even. I didn’t register that Micah (Williams) ran 9.8 or that Favor (Ashe) ran 9.7. Everyone besides those two, everyone ran 10.XX. I watched the prelims and I watched the progression of what happened at regionals and what had happened at conference meets. On the prelim day, no one dipped under 10. Alright, cool. That’s great. I was expecting Micah to dip under 10 in the final because of the start alone. He gets out, holds it and he wins. That’s if there’s no pressure applied. Going in, I thought it was a fair game for anybody, honestly.
CITIUS MAG: Last night, you fired off this tweet at 1 a.m. and it said, “Currently at a friendly gathering past bedtime watching film…I can’t escape the grind even if I tried.” You just talked about how much you watch film. How much of a student of the sport are you?
JOSEPH FAHNBULLEH: Coach sends us videos on this app called OnForm. Even during freshman year, it would be 2 a.m. and he’d just send us something. I’d watch it immediately at 2 a.m. It doesn’t matter. If I’m in the middle of a test, I’d watch the film because he would say, ‘You need to keep your arms this way…” and I’d be like, ‘Alright cool’ and then do my test. Some of it, I just can’t escape. I’m OK with that. If you want to get to that next level, you have to be a student first and then apply that. I was just bored at the party. I was on Twitter scrolling and then I watched it.
CITIUS MAG: You’re notorious for your start. You’ve been working hard to make it better. You said it’s fixed. On TV, some of the pundits would disagree and say that it still needs some work. How hard have you been working on the start? The top-end speed and the close are there.
JOSEPH FAHNBULLEH: After SECs, every block start day was like a B+ average until then. Since I’m such a visual person, he did this during my freshman year to understand how to go forward and push-off, he put tape on the ground. After SECs, if I was doing jogs and strides, I’d do them on the tape. That was the turning point where I could get out and hold it. I was also trying to manage my race anxiety. People don’t talk about that. When your name is big and when the pressure is on you, it can sometimes be subconscious and you’re not present because you get frazzled a little bit. I was trying to calm down in the race and on the line. You have to do what your body knows what to do. Coach always says, ‘Turn off your brain and run.’ The work has been done. It’s all muscle memory at this point.
I would say to all those internet coaches: Stop. Get off my meat. It doesn’t work. It does not help. You’re not doing anything. If you want to talk to coach Holloway, his email and his number are on the website. Tell him how to do his job because you’re saying that you know more. I’m just saying. My start was bad and I won NCAAs. Please be quiet.
CITIUS MAG: How mental is the 100m?
JOSEPH FAHNBULLEH: The mentality is different for some people. For me, it’s ‘Alright, get out with the field.’ For someone like Christian Coleman, it’s maybe ‘Maintain after 60m.’ For Usain Bolt, it was ‘Get out with the whole field.’ It varies…I do envision myself getting out with the whole field because if I can envision getting out in my own mind, I’ve done it already now I have to do it again. It’s pretty mental. You don’t want to overwork or overthink it too much because it can crush you in a way.
CITIUS MAG: Is there a point where you know you did what you needed to with the start? You told John Anderson on the ESPN broadcast, ‘If I’m even at the 30m, I’m gone.’ Is that the point where you know that they didn’t get away from you and you’ve got this because no one eats up the ground like you do?
JOSEPH FAHNBULLEH: Even before 30m, when I get out and usually I see there’s a space between the body of lives and me then me. If I don’t see that gap of space, I’m good and I got out fine and I’m kind of close. It’s weird because I took two steps and I was even. I took two more steps and I was in front. The whole wall of bodies just went past me. I was like, ‘Woah!’ I took two more steps and I won. The whole drive phase, I don’t remember anything except standing up, taking two steps, being even, taking two more steps and then I’m at the line. That’s the whole race to me. I can’t explain it.
CITIUS MAG: What is the statement that you hope people take away from seeing you run this weekend?
JOSEPH FAHNBULLEH: I hope the statement I made was more visual than with my words. I proved to y’all that I can win the 100m even without running 9.9 – usually, people run that in the final at NCAAs. I hope the statement was that I am one of the better collegiate athletes out there as of right now. I hope that my name can still last after I am not competing in the NCAA anymore. My name is out there.
CITIUS MAG: Do you still get scared before these races?
JOSEPH FAHNBULLEH: Yes. I still get nervous. In the 200m, I was nervous especially. Last year, I won and this year the field was deep. Matthew (Boling) was on the inside. Shaun (Maswanganyi) was next to me. Udodi (Onwuzurike) was in Lane 8. This was the last one. I had to defend my own. It was my baby. My own. I was scared. That’s why I got into the set position late. I had no idea what was going on. He said, ‘Set.’ And I was like, ‘Oh! OK. Cool. Set. Let me go.’ And then I went off. I used that scaredness as a boost. You can’t let off the brakes that one time. If you run scared, in a way it can help but not all the time. You can’t run scared or else you’ll panic. You have to find a way to use it.
CITIUS MAG: Coach Mike Holloway said, “I don’t know of anybody on the planet that has that kind of top-end speed….I’ve never seen anything like that. Nothing like that in my life.” What’s that mean coming from someone like him who has worked and seen some of the best.
JOSEPH FAHNBULLEH: It’s high praise. But knowing coach Holloway, he will say that and then he will say in like a week and a half, ‘You haven’t done shit…’ And I’m like, ‘Thank you.’ You need that praise and you need someone to be on your ass again. He always says, ‘Don’t praise me for doing my job.’ This weekend, I did my job. I appreciate every thank you and congrats. But at the same time, I went out there, did my job, did what I was supposed to do, did what I wanted to do and we’ll leave it at that.
But! It is kind of crazy though because Noah Lyles has that crazy top-end speed and doesn’t slow down as much as the rest of the field. (Coach Holloway) saying that when Noah is still in the field is kind of crazy. There was this stat at the Olympics where it showed the progression of how fast people were at their top-end speed and I was faster than Noah, which was to me kind of cool. Noah was the person before me that people were saying, ‘He doesn’t slow down at all. His top-end speed is crazy.’ It is but now I’m on the scene. It’s nothing but respect for Noah but it’s also cool that I’m in the same category and I’m a little bit different.
CITIUS MAG: Can you describe Florida’s team culture? Holloway is one of the best coaches in the world. He can be strict and get you right sometimes. It also takes guys like you and Grant Holloway over the years to have fun with it and keep the lighthearted side of the sport. It meshes well when it all comes together.
JOSEPH FAHNBULLEH: The whole team culture from the fall was that we have the guys. On paper, we’re crazy…The whole fall, we talked, ‘Let’s show them how good we are.’ Coach was so upset that we finished 20th indoors. Granted, no one was there besides the 400m guys. He was on a mission. I instilled that mission too. I made sure people were on their Ps and Qs. Some days I was not on my Ps and Qs but the other teammates would help me out. It’s more of a family vibe. It’s one band, one sound. If you’re not on that same wavelength, we will get you on that. We will force you to be. No one here is a damn scrub. No one likes losing. If you like to lose, Coach Holloway says, ‘I will pack up your shit from your locker in a trash bag and I will throw it on the street. Goodbye.’ He says he has people in the transfer portal that want to come here and you’re over here bullshitting? Bye. We don’t take shit for granted. Not one day. There are days when we have fun, obviously. Because if you’re not having fun and don’t do what you love, you’re not going to do good. When it comes down to it, you have to perform and you have to do your job. The whole vibe was: We want to win. We have a good shot of winning, we want to win.
CITIUS MAG: What’s it like having fans? You got back to Gainesville last night and there were fans waiting for you at the airport. There were kids holding posters.
JOSEPH FAHNBULLEH: It means a lot. It means the world. If I can make you want to do better at your own sport – it can be football, skiing, water polo or whatever – if you see me and I’m working hard, and you’re inspired from me working hard, I’ve done my part. The accolades and the hardware is cool and all. My hardware is still in the boxes. I haven’t even opened my ring. I don’t care about it as much. That’s not why I do it. I do it for the people. I do it for the connections. I do it for my family and friends because they’ve been there since Day 1. It really means the world seeing them and saying thank you.
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