The following story was initially published on FloridaGators.com.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Kunle Fasasi wasn't sure earlier this week how he would spend Saturday, a day he has worked tirelessly toward since touching down in Florida five years ago from his hometown of Ile-Ife, Nigeria.
A few months ago he imagined his mother making her first trip to the U.S. to watch him participate in Florida's summer commencement ceremony. It would be a day of celebration and reunion for his family, which stressed the importance of academics and a well-rounded approach to life long before Fasasi became a living embodiment of that path.
Instead, due to the global coronavirus pandemic and safety measures in place, Fasasi's parents remain in Nigeria while he has been anchored here the past five months, putting the finishing touches on graduating Magna Cum Laude with dual degrees in French and telecommunications. A member of four national championship Gators men's track and field teams as an undergrad, Fasasi is able to maintain a hopeful perspective amidst the gloom of the daily headlines.
"As fate would have it, with the whole COVID, everything changed,'' Fasasi said. "But on the bright side, I'm also trying to do a master's degree here. So hopefully by the end when I get done with that, everything will be back to normal and she will be able to come down and attend the graduation."
Meanwhile, Fasasi was scheduled to move into a new apartment on Friday (Aug. 14) and figured he would spend much of Saturday setting up his room. UF has a virtual commencement ceremony planned and Fasasi said he might try to send the link to his parents if they are interested. Back home, his father is a college professor and his mother a nurse. Both have master's degrees and doctorate degrees. Both of his older sisters are highly educated.
On his special day, he is fine with a word that is popular these days: normalcy.
"I'm going to keep it real with you. Really, it's not," Fasasi said when asked if Saturday was a big deal at home in light of the circumstances. "They probably don't even remember that it's this weekend. For my parents, this is normal."
While it might not be the event he envisioned at the start of 2020, it's difficult for those outside the Fasasi household to downplay his accomplishments. A soccer player growing up, he emerged as a budding track standout when coaches and teammates kept telling him he should turn to track because he was always outrunning the ball on the soccer field. He heard it so often that he eventually heeded their advice.
Soon, he was in America for the first time in July 2014 competing for Nigeria at the World Athletics Junior Championships in Eugene, Ore., the only time since the event was established in 1986 that it has been held on American soil. Gators assistant coach Nic Petersen was there and noticed the young sprinter on the Nigerian 4x400 relay team. He made contact with Fasasi and when he returned to campus, Petersen shared video of Fasasi with UF head coach Mike Holloway.
Petersen recalls Holloway's first words: "Oh, yeah."
"That kind of started it,'' Petersen said.
Fasasi had much to learn about the recruiting process and relied heavily on fellow Nigerian Ese Brume for direction. A long jumper who competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics and finished third at the 2019 IAAF World Championships in Qatar, Brume had garnered interest from American universities, including UF. She chose to take the professional route. Fasasi had other plans and was not deterred when mutual interest with LSU failed to come to fruition.
He wanted to combine his newfound interest in track with an education at a prestigious U.S. school. Once the Gators showed interest, the possibility began to crystallize.
"That was always my dream,'' Fasasi said. "I feel very proud of being able to accomplish this. And most importantly, it's not just the degree, but the transformation that I have undergone over the years. This is a whole package. It's not just a graduation package. So many lessons learned."
On the track, Fasasi contributed immediately, specializing in the 400 meters and helping the Gators 4x400-relay team finish second at both the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor championships in 2016. He continued to play a significant role for the Gators over the next two seasons until injuries began to take their toll. He is hoping to conclude his career next spring in his final year of eligibility by regaining the form he showed early in his career.
Don't put it past him. Petersen has always been impressed at Fasasi's ability to maintain perspective regardless of the situation, a trait he recognized from the start.
"Supreme focus,'' Petersen said. "He was going to be very diligent about what he was doing, whether it was academics or track or whatever. He was going to do it to the best of his ability. He didn't know any other way."
That approach certainly benefited Fasasi as he balanced the demands of competing for one of the nation's top programs while excelling in the classroom. Fasasi's interest in French stems from being born in Echirolles, France. The family moved to Nigeria soon afterward but the language and culture never left him even as Yoruba became his primary language in Nigeria. His French came in useful for the Gators when they were recruiting national champion long jumper Yanis David, a native of France who grew up in Guadeloupe. On her recruiting visit, the Gators needed a translator to communicate with David and her mother.
Petersen and Holloway relied on Fasasi to help pull one of the Gators' top recruits in recent years.
"It was the most interesting thing. The mom would talk for four minutes,'' Petersen said. "Yanis would translate it to Kunle. Kunle would translate it to Coach Holloway and me. It would be a one-word answer. Coach Holloway and I would look at each other and wonder: 'Is this going well?' He helped us get Yanis. I don't know if we would get her without Kunle."
As Fasasi aims to finish his UF track career in a winning lane, he also has eyes set on long-term goals. He hopes to be a filmmaker and make films in French and English one day. His father is a movie buff and growing up Fasasi spent countless hours watching American and international films with his dad. Movies like "The Shawshank Redemption," well-made from a technical standpoint and featuring a compelling storyline, drew him into film.
Fasasi's journey certainly has some thematic elements. Over the past five years, he has only been home twice. His family has yet to make that trip to America. Perhaps one day he can make a movie on his life. For now, he is focused on the next step in that journey.
There is a new apartment to decorate, a new degree to pursue, goals left to attain on the track, and of course, more lessons to be learned.
"It feels very fulfilling,'' he said. "I never took it lightly. Growing up in my environment, you are always expected to be a medical doctor or a lawyer or engineer or dentist. There was no room to look into what interests me. I didn't really know. I wanted to be a medical doctor. I don't think it was realistic since I have always been scared of blood. How am I going to be a medical doctor? I don't know what I was thinking."
The education of Kunle Fasasi continues.