Many of Bilal Abdullah‘s days are broken down into a series of numbers.
The 18 steps he takes in his approach to the long jump pit. The 18 seconds per 100 meters he strives to cover during the 1500-meter race. Ten hurdles here. Four hundred meters there. Tenths and hundredths of a second that determine the difference between victory and defeat. Five track and field events one day. Five events the next day. Five prayers every day.
Precision is a must. Repetition is a given. The end result, whether he wins or loses, is always exhaustion.
A senior Computer Science major at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, Abdullah is what is known in track and field and a multi-eventer: He competes in the 10-event decathlon during the spring/summer outdoor season and in the 7-event heptathlon during the winter indoor season.
Every four years, the Olympic gold medalist in the men’s decathlon — which consists of the 100-meter dash, 400-meter dash, 1500-meter run, 110-meter hurdles, long jump, high jump, pole vault, shot put, discus and javelin — is unofficially crowned the “World’s Greatest Athlete.”
The decathlon is arguably the most physically demanding, mentally trying and widely respected challenge that an athlete can take on. (The heptathlon is no walk in the proverbial park, either.)
Abdullah can count himself among the accomplished members of this elite multi-event fraternity.
In the 2016 NCAA Indoor Championships, Abdullah competed in the heptathlon — the 60-meter dash, 1000-meter run, 60-meter hurdles, long jump, high jump, pole vault and shot put — and finished sixth overall. Among the field of 16 competitors, Abdullah posted the fastest 60-meter hurdle time (7.86 seconds) and the second-best mark in the high jump (2.10 meters, or just over 6 feet and 10 inches). At the same meet in 2015, Abdullah finished fourth overall.
Abdullah has had his share of highlights on the outdoor track — he won the Atlantic Sun Conference title in the 110-meter hurdles as a freshman at KSU, and the decathlon conference title as a sophomore — but he has yet to qualify for the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the decathlon.
In his final year as a collegian he is aiming to take his place among the NCAA’s best multi-eventers, then go on to qualify for the Rio Olympics this summer.
UMMAH SPORTS: When did you start taking track and field seriously?
BILAL ABDULLAH: Senior year of high school (Brookwood HS in Snellville, Ga.). I did two track meets my sophomore year — with no training or anything — and I broke my ankle. I thought I was gonna be done after that. I was playing basketball, and the track coach talked to me about coming out for track. I did it my senior year and I was fortunate enough to get a (college) scholarship.
US: Were you a good basketball player?
BA: My stats weren’t that good; I averaged probably six points and three or four rebounds (per game). I was a power forward. I also wrestled my sophomore year in high school.
US: Were you a natural in track and field? Like, when you were a kid, were you always fast or could you always jump?
BA: That’s funny, I was just talking to an old friend and he said, “We saw potential in you when you were little.” People say they noticed it when I was younger, but they didn’t know I would do all of this.
US: Which athletes did you admire growing up?
BA: I never watched sports when I was younger. I still don’t, really. My role models were my parents and my older brothers.
US: Were you born Muslim, or did you convert?
BA: I was born Muslim. My father converted to Islam when he was like 15. My mother had a Muslim father, but she lived with her mother growing up. My mother became Muslim when she married my father.
US: Was there a big or close-knit Muslim community where you grew up?
BA: We had a tight-packed community when we lived in Columbia, South Carolina. We would go to the masjid and stay until 2 a.m. some nights, playing basketball and football, playing cops and robbers. My mother’s best friend’s family had 16 kids and we’d all hang out together.
It was a real good upbringing Islamically, always being at the masjid.
US: A lot of teenagers and college kids who were raised in religious households have a period where they either begin to question if the religious life is one for them, or they just fall off in terms of practicing the religion since they’re out on their own. Did you have a period like that?
BA: I never left Islam, but I kind of left the responsibilities of Islam during my freshman year of college. I got a little freedom and I guess just went too far. It wasn’t that long, Alhamdulillah. Allah wouldn’t let me go away completely. I would miss a prayer, but then I’d make it up.
The thing was, I kept getting injured that year. I sprained my ankle, then eventually I broke my ankle. It made me want to do better (as a Muslim) because I knew this wasn’t coming out of nowhere; it was probably because of the sins I was doing.
Then in my sophomore year, my mother passed. That brought me completely back to Islam. That was a game-changer. The whole time before that, I had been coming back slowly and it was kind of hard. But after that, everything clicked. Whatever I could do to boost her level up in Jannah, that’s what I wanted to do.
US: Are you able to fast during Ramadan? It seems that you would need as much energy as possible, even more than your average athlete, especially if Ramadan falls during your competition or training season.
BA: I train myself for it during the year. I try to fast on as many Mondays and Thursdays as I can year-round, so when Ramadan comes, it’s not that hard. Allah has blessed me to be able to do that.
My teammates will be like, “You do all of that and you have to train?” I think there was one time where I almost passed out after we had a real hard workout, but that was the only time.
US: Did you want to do the decathlon when you started taking track seriously? Or was it something you fell into?
BA: I decided to do it. Which is a little different because usually a coach will see you (in one event) and thinks you’re going to be a good multi-eventer. But I already had the idea of me being a decathlete. When I first introduced myself to the coach at Kennesaw State, I said, “I want to do the decathlon.” He said, “I was thinking the same thing.”
US: What are your strongest events in the decathlon, and what are your weakest events?
BA: My strengths are the long jump, 110 hurdles and high jump, in that order. Weaknesses are the shot put, discus and javelin. My weaknesses are the throws; my strengths are jumping and hurdles.
US: Take us through your routine on the first day of the decathlon competition.
BA: We do neuromuscular (treatment) on competition days, which is ideally seven hours before you compete. That’s usually around fajr time anyway, so I get up at 5 or 6 a.m. for that. Then I try to eat and drink some kombucha or cherry juice to give me some energy.
We head to the track and eat breakfast — two eggs and French toast most of the time, with some bananas, apples or dates — and I’m warming up by 10 or 11 a.m., getting ready to compete at noon.
US: Is there anything else you do to get ready before or between events, either physically or mentally?
BA: I’ll make du’a before almost every event.
US: Is the order of decathlon events the same at every meet?
BA: Yeah. The first day is the 100, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400. The second day is 110 hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1500 meters.
US: What’s the first thing you do after Day 1 of competition?
BA: Get something in my body to eat. Salmon, shrimp … usually some kind of fish. Then I’ll try to get to a pool or find some other way to loosen my muscles and cool down.
Go relax, maybe watch a movie to get my mind off of it. Go to sleep, wake up and do it all over again.
US: And after Day 2 of competition, what do you do?
BA: Go to sleep. (Laughs) Anything I can do to go to sleep.
US: How long does it take for your body to recover after a decathlon?
BA: Normally it’s real bad the first two days after competition. Sometimes the third day. By the fourth day I’m usually good.
US: How many decathlons will you compete in during this outdoor season before the NCAA Championships?
BA: We never know. Our main goal before nationals is to try to get a qualifying score. Right now, the plan is to just do one decathlon before nationals. It takes a little out of you to do multiple decathlons, so if you get a good mark on your first one, you want to wait until nationals to do another one.
Between then, I’ll do like two or three events at a meet, maybe four depending on how my body is feeling. One week I might do javelin and hurdles; the next week it might be hurdles and long jump. I’ll go through all 10 events, but at different meets.
US: What are your goals for the rest of this year? You have your college senior season, you could turn pro after that, and it’s an Olympic year.
BA: I want to go to the Olympics. My plan is to go to the Olympic trials, insha’Allah. Either I’ll make it for Team USA or I don’t. If I don’t, I may try to go to another country and compete.
I don’t want to stop, that’s all I know. So I’ll be going pro, insha’Allah, either here or somewhere else?
US: Where is somewhere else?
BA: A Muslim country, preferably. Maybe Qatar or somewhere like that.
GLOSSARY OF TERMS
masjid — a place of worship and prayer for Muslims. Also called a mosque.
Alhamdulillah — “Praise be to God.” A phrase that is used to thank God for the blessings He has given.
Jannah — Paradise or Heaven
Ramadan — the holy month of fasting for Muslims. It was during this month that Allah began to reveal the Quran to Prophet Muhammad.
fajr — the first obligatory prayer of the day, before sunrise
du’a — a prayer
insha’Allah — “God willing” or “If Allah wills”