Mormon Olympic hopeful from Ghana learned priceless lessons on mission
At the National Athletics Championship at the El-Wak Sports Stadium in Accra, Ghana, Allah Laryea-Akrong tenses at the line, crouched down, mind clear, on the verge of making it to the 2012 Olympics in London as a sprinter in the men's 100-meter event.
The bang from the gun pierces the air, and mechanically Akrong is out of the blocks and sprinting to the finish line. He crosses first, breaking his personal record, only to realize he's missed the Olympic mark by two-hundredths of a second off the B standard qualifying time of 10.25 seconds. Akrong has clocked in at 10.27.
Laryea-Akrong is a runner, Latter-day Saint and Olympic hopeful. The 29-year-old who competes for the Utah Valley University track team fell just short of qualifying for the Olympics for his home country of Ghana, but persists in chasing his dream.
"I was like so close to the Olympic Games, and I can really see that dream happening this year and I was excited and I really didn't think I had so much to work on. I was just thinking that all I needed to do was focus more and get relaxed more and just run good, but the unexpected happened when we had to go to Benin," Laryea-Akrong said.
With one more chance to qualify, Laryea-Akrong and his team traveled to Benin for the African Championship, but their anticipated four-hour drive to Benin took 17 hours and Laryea-Akrong again failed to qualify for the Olympics. "Everything was just thrown off so it wasn't really fun going out there," Laryea-Akrong said.
With hopes dashed for the 2012 Olympics, Laryea-Akrong anticipates qualifying for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Between then and now, Laryea-Akrong will finish his bachelor's degree in technology management and looks forward to starting a family with his wife, Megan, getting a career and owning his own business.
"I just learned that you can't always think what you want is supposed to happen," he said. "The Lord has a plan for you, and you have to do what he wants and he will see you through whatever you have to do. It really motivates me to do things if it's what the Lord really wants me to do, and even not going to the Olympic Games this year I don't feel disappointed. I just think the Lord has a plan, and I just have to realize that if it is his own time and his own will, I will be happy."
Baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1994 at age 11, he had two goals: serve a mission and run competitively in the United States. He began running in high school, and his coaches told him he was too small, but he ran anyway.
After high school, he continued to run. He hoped that by postponing his mission, he'd eventually get to run in the United States, but he couldn't catch a break.
Then in 2004, a coach from Utah Valley University heard about Laryea-Akrong and sent him forms to apply, but the deadline passed before he could interview. Frustrated, he remembered, "Put the Lord first and everything will work out."
Stubbornly, he continued to pursue competitive running, but eventually left on his mission in 2005, to the Accra Ghana Mission, where he served for two years.
"I've always been taught, the Lord has a plan for you, and so I thought, 'The Lord's plan can wait and I'll try out my plan and see how it goes,' but mostly my plans never come through," he said. "I never traveled with the national team before I served my mission, like for almost five years I never went anywhere But when I made the decision to serve my mission and come back, I just got back from my mission and I got to go to Ethiopia and run for the national team."
After his Mormon mission, Laryea-Akrong's talent soared and he was faster than ever. He went from not running competitively for two years to being selected to go to the National Sports Festival. After finishing in the top four, he was selected for the national team in Ghana and soon traveled to Ethiopia for the African Championship.
Soon after the African Championship, Laryea-Akrong received a call from the track coach at UVU asking him to come to the United States. At the same time, Laryea-Akrong's team had just qualified to run in the team relay at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Facing a tough decision, he had his visa ready to go to China, but his team didn't have enough money to send him to Germany to train before the Games.
Instead, Ghana sent a team of athletes already training in Germany to the Olympics.
It was in 2009, while attending UVU, that Laryea-Akrong met his future wife, Megan, at their singles ward. They were engaged in September 2011 and married last December.
In June 2011, Megan's mother and stepfather, Nena and Mark, attended their first track meet. After the race, Laryea-Akrong told them that no one had ever come to see him run. Since then, they vowed to attend as many meets as they could and have traveled to Idaho, California and Nevada.
"With that support given me, I couldn't ask for anything better than that," Laryea-Akrong said. "They just keep coming and coming, and I feel so glad running to the finish line, hopefully I hear them yell my name and I come up with a smile and then we go celebrate. I feel good knowing there are people watching me do something I love."
It wasn't until the National Athletic Championship at the El-Wak Sports Stadium, where Laryea-Akrong almost qualified for the Olympics, that his father got to watch him run in competition for the first time — at the same stadium where, at age 13, his dad had first bragged to his friends that his son could run. "That was really exciting to have my dad there and to have me run that good, to run a personal record for him to witness. He's just happy that I can run and go to school and have an education but he had not seen me run, so to see me do that was exciting and he loved it and he told me how impressed he was, and I thought, 'Great that I made my dad proud.’”
Laryea-Akrong has learned many things from his setbacks and accomplishments in running. "I've learned to just focus. I mean, it's hard to focus when you have to go to work at 6 o'clock, go to school, come back, go to track and have a wife and have a family, but I mean I've learned to do that, and the biggest of all is just rely on the Lord.
"Everything I'm doing is adding up, and every year it gets better and better and better, and I feel like I can really achieve that dream of going to Olympic Games, and it happened the way it happened, but I mean I still learned and see that there's more I can improve on and get to that dream one day."
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