In many ways, track and field is the simplest of sports. You run fast; you win. You throw far; you win. You jump high; you win. And it’s not like those of us blessed with able bodies have to be taught how to run, throw or jump — those are skills we typically discover on our own as toddlers.
Still, it’s not realistic to expect any individual to just enter the sport of track and field with little to no experience or training and compete with the best athletes in the world.
Which makes what Moujtaba Mohammed is doing pretty impressive.
The 19-year-old University of Nebraska freshman didn’t start competing in track and field until three years ago, when he was a junior at North Star High School in Lincoln, Neb. At the urging of track and cross country coach Matt Musiel, who saw some potential in the skinny soccer player, Mohammed took up the sport. By the end of his senior year, he’d won the Nebraska state championship in the 800-meter run.
In his first year in college, Mohammed competed in 600-, 800- and 1000-meter races during the winter indoor season, and in the spring outdoor season ran the 400 and 800. He finished fourth in the 600 at the Big Ten Indoor Championships. During outdoor, Mohammed won the 800 at the Husker Spring Invitational, finished second in the 400 at the Nebraska Invitational, ran the anchor leg for the Corhuskers’ 4×800 and 1600-meter sprint medley relay teams at the Drake Relays, and advanced to the 800-meter semifinal at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships.
Some track athletes would have to train half their lives to compile that kind of resume. Mohammed has done it as a relative newcomer to the sport.
Born into a Muslim family in Saudi Arabia before moving to Sudan, Mohammed moved again to the United States when he was in sixth grade, his family settling just five minutes away from the University of Nebraska campus.
Now that he’s had a taste of NCAA competition, Mohammed plans to add some muscle to his 6-foot-1, 150-pound frame this summer as he aims to make an even bigger impact on the track as a sophomore. But considering how far he’s come in such a short time, he already has a lot to feel good about.
UMMAH SPORTS: How would you grade your freshman season on the track?
MOUJTABA MOHAMMED: It was amazing. This is only my third year in the sport and my first year in college, so I did better than I think anyone expected me to do.
US: What was the highlight of your season?
MM: At the Big Ten Indoor Championships, I was predicted to get eighth or ninth place in the 600, but I ended up getting fourth. That was great because nobody expected that I’d do that well.
US: You won the 800 at the Husker Invitational. Was that a highlight for you?
MM: I mean, not really, because I set the bar high for myself. Alhamdulillah, I’m thankful for any win, but that was kind of like just another practice. I want to win at the big meets, like the Big Ten or the NCAA nationals.
US: How long did it take for you to feel like track was your sport?
MM: My junior year (of high school) it was a little tough. I wasn’t used to running. I ran for the cross country team, too, mostly to get more endurance, and I didn’t like that at all. By my senior year, I was really committed to (track).
US: Having started so late and not really seeing a lot of success until your senior year of high school, did you get recruited by a lot of colleges to run track?
MM: Not really. I didn’t run my best time until the last meet of my senior year, which was too late for a lot of colleges to offer a scholarship. Nebraska was interested in having me as a walk-on. I wanted to stay close to home anyway, so I decided to go to Nebraska.
US: Did you play other sports before you got into track?
MM: I grew up playing soccer. I played my freshman and sophomore year in high school. I have two brothers that both play soccer, too.
US: If you had stuck with soccer over track, do you think you’d be playing soccer in college?
MM: Probably not, honestly. There’s no major soccer programs out here. I probably would’ve just been going to school and focusing on academics.
US: What is your major?
MM: Civil engineering.
US: How did you get into that?
MM: Most of my family is in the medical field or the engineering field. My dad is in the medial field, but he wasn’t trying to push me into doing what he does. It was mostly my uncles who talked me into going into engineering.
US: Having spent the first part of your life in Muslim-majority countries and then coming to the U.S., what was immediately different about living here?
MM: Back in Sudan, you’d hear the call to prayer all the time, every day. The society was very influenced by the religion. Here, you have to remind yourself when it’s time to pray. Your faith has to be strong because it’s not like when it’s time to pray you hear the call to prayer and everybody around you is going straight to the mosque.
US: How have your teammates and other non-Muslim people you’ve met treated you when they find out you’re Muslim?
MM: They mostly ask questions. “What do you believe in?” “Do you believe in Jesus?” That kind of thing. Some people have positive ideas in their mind about Islam, and some people have negative ideas. My job is to tell the ones with negative ideas, “Hey, that’s not what we’re about,” that Islam is actually a great religion.
US: Is it a challenge to stay diligent in your religion when you’re on a college campus? It would be easy for you to slack off and do stuff you’re not supposed to do.
MM: It’s not tough. My friends know that I don’t do certain stuff, so peer pressure isn’t really a problem. It’s not tough if you just be yourself and don’t let other people influence you. When people do try to get me to go do something like that, I just think, “Would my parents be proud of what I’m doing right now?”
I have to look at myself kind of like an Islamic icon. When people look at me, they’re not going to think, “Oh that’s just him doing that.” They’ll look at me like it’s the whole Muslim community, the whole religion of Islam doing it.
US: How about balancing your academic and athletic duties with you religion? You have class, you have to study, you have practice, you have track meets … and then you’re still trying to pray five times a day and read the Quran when you can.
MM: Time management is hard sometimes. You’ve got to make your class schedule where it doesn’t interfere with practices, then make sure your classes and practice doesn’t interfere with prayer time. It can be difficult, but if you put your religion on top of everything else, it will make your life easier.
US: Outside of your family, have you found a supportive Muslim community in Lincoln?
MM: Yes. We have a masjid here, and every time I go, there are Black Americans, White Americans, people from the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan, Bosnia, China … that’s the thing I like most about it. Anyone can be a Muslim. There’s no Black or White. Everyone has love for everyone; that shows the love of the religion. It’s nice to have Muslim brothers around you all the time. It helps you feel closer to your religion.
US: What are your plans for this summer?
MM: I’ll be taking one summer class. Other than that, just keep training. Ramadan is right around the corner and I think during Ramadan I’m not going to run at all. I’ll lift weights, but I won’t run.
US: What is your typical training day like?
MM: On Monday, Wednesday and Friday we’ll have morning practice. That will consist of an hour of lifting. Then after classes we’ll come back in the afternoon and do a track workout for an hour, or run hills for an hour.
US: How does fasting during Ramadan impact your training?
MM: In high school, Ramadan would usually fall right after track season, so during that time I wouldn’t do anything; I’d mostly relax. But I’m in college now, and the competition is tougher. In high school, I felt like I could take that time off. Now I feel like if I’m taking time off, other guys are still training. So I have to be doing something. Like I said, I won’t run during Ramadan this year, but I’ll lift.
US: What is your favorite event?
MM: I like the 400 because it’s an all-out sprint with nothing else to think about. You stay in your lane the whole time, so no one else’s actions are going to affect you. You just run your fastest.
US: Even though you like the 400, do you see yourself focusing more exclusively on the 800 in the future?
MM: I think so, yeah.
US: How did the 800 become your primary event?
MM: My first year of track, in high school, Coach (Musiel) started me out as a long-distance runner. Then with each meet he’d move me down, move me down. My times in the mile and two-mile races were OK, but the first time I ran the 800, I did like 1:56, which was pretty good. My coach thought that’s where I should focus.
US: Are there any pro or Olympic-level track athletes you look up to or maybe pattern your style after?
MM: I follow (800-meter world champion) Mohammed Aman from Ethiopia. I like watching him because he’s good both on the track and outside of track as far as taking his religion seriously.
US: Aman is known for his finishing kick, and then you have somebody like (800-meter world record holder) David Rudisha who will get to the front right away. What is your style in that race? Do you like to start fast, or come on late?
MM: I don’t usually lead. I’ll have a slow start — mostly I try to stick with the group — then a really great finish.
US: What are your goals in this sport moving forward?
MM: Next year I want to qualify for the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor nationals. Indoor, I’m mostly going to focus on the 600 and 800 — mostly the 800 because they don’t run the 600 at nationals. Outdoor, I’m going to focus on the 800, but I’ll run a couple of 400s. I was the alternate for the 4×400 relay team at NCAA regionals, so I want to be ready in case they need me again.
US: Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
MM: I want to thank my parents, my family and my friends, and the Muslim community in Lincoln for raising me and helping me get to where I’m at right now.