A word to the guys running against Mookie Salaam at this week’s NCAA Regionals: If he’s smiling, you’re in trouble.
For the Oklahoma sprinter, having fun on the track virtually supersedes the success he’s had during his indoor and outdoor seasons. And no one could blame him. The track has been his refuge during some difficult times in his life.
“If I’m mad or sad, it has been an outlet for me,” Salaam said. “I’ve been through a lot. Running is where I can go and clear my mind. It’s fun to be out there, and it has been a blessing to me. I’m just glad I can use it to show the world my talents.”
The next time the world gets to see his talents is at the NCAA West Preliminary Round Thursday through Saturday in Eugene, Ore. An NCAA indoor champion in the 200-meter dash – and an Indoor All-American in that event– Salaam enters the outdoor regionals ranked No. 1 in the 200-meter dash and No. 8 in the 100-meter dash.
Salaam, a junior from Edmond, Okla., holds OU records in the indoor 60-meter dash (6.54), the indoor 200-meter dash (20.39) and the outdoor 200-meter dash (20.05). He’s the Big 12 indoor champion in the 60-meter dash and 200-meter dash and was All-Conference in those events and as member of the 4×400-meter relay. And for the outdoor season, he was All-Big 12 in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash and 4×100-meter relay. Judging from those results, Salaam, the 2011 Big 12’Track and Field Athlete of the Year, isn’t merely happy when on the track. He is ecstatic.
Salaam’s current disposition can be traced back to a very rough patch for him. During his junior year in high school, his family moved to Oklahoma so his stepfather could be near his mother, who was dying of leukemia. She died two months after the family arrived, but it would get worse for Salaam. Allegations of child abuse – later determined to be unfounded – led the Department of Human Services to take Salaam and his siblings from his home.
“Right then, I had to grow up,” said Salaam, the fourth of seven children. “I had to be there for my little brothers and little sister. I didn’t want to leave the state.”
So he rejected overtures to play football elsewhere and accepted a track scholarship at OU. That allowed him to be near his three younger brothers in a boy’s ranch in Edmond and his younger sister who, like him, was in a foster home.
“It was something I could not help but think about [during his freshman year at OU],” Salaam said. “It was a horrible time, but it made us closer. We’re a big happy family now.”
That happiness has transferred seamlessly to the track. Salaam earned multiple All-Big 12 honors (indoor and outdoor) his freshman and sophomore years.
“He’s been through a whole lot,” said Matt Kane, Oklahoma assistant track coach. I know he has a greater appreciation for his talents. I think his foster family did a wonderful job with him through that time.
“He’s grown. He had a terrific fall in training and came in to this year a totally different athlete in every facet. He’s matured and has a better understanding of my coaching and our relationship has grown. From the testing we’ve done, he’s had as good a fall as anyone we’ve ever had. It’s been amazing.”
Salaam’s pursuit of happiness continues this week in Oregon and he could not be better physically. And he is well aware that he will be among the best of the best. Those givens free him from distractions. He’s in his happy place and nothing beats that.
“I will go out there with a clear mind,” Salaam said. “I don’t think of anything else. It is just me running against the clock. You have to only think about running your own race. It’s not going to help you thinking about anything else. I will just run to where I need to be. If I do that, then I’ll be happy.”