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Cal Track & Field: Confidence Fuels Sprinter Ezinne Abba's Quest to Run Faster

Senior is hoping to qualify out of Regional prelims this week to the NCAA nationals.

When he arrived at Cal, first-year sprints coach Ronnye Harrison watched video of Ezinne Abba’s first-round 100-meter race at the 2021 NCAA regional meet. Afterward, he had a message for his new pupil.

“I watched that race maybe 30 times. Kept looking and stopping in certain places,” Harrison said. “I told her, `You ran 11.30 (seconds). I just want you to know you’re way faster than that. It’s up to you how great you really want to be.’ ”

The senior from Rancho Cucamonga (whose name is pronounced Eh-zuh-nay AH-buh) has been great enough this season to crush her best time in the 100 with a school-record 11.12-second mark and move to second on the program’s all-time list with a 22.91 clocking in the 200.

She finished second in both races at the Pac-12 championships two weeks ago, and earlier this spring helped the Golden Bears’ 4x100 relay team break an 18-year-old school record with a time of 43.99.

If she can overtake Antonette Carter’s 16-year-old, altitude-aided program standard of 22.72 in the 200, Abba would become the only Cal track and field athlete — male or female — with outdoor records in three events.

“I hope to break that,” she says in the video at the top of this story.

Abba gets her next chance in all three events at the NCAA West regional preliminary meet that begins Wednesday at Fayetteville, Ark. Her 100 and 200 first-round races will be Thursday with the relay taking the track on Saturday.

The top 12 finishers in each event qualify to run at the NCAA Championships, June 8-11 at Eugene, Ore.

Abba says she is healthier this season than in past years but also has developed more confidence through her work with Harrison.

“I feel like I’ve put a lot more trust in him and he trusts me, too. And with that trust, there’s a lot of confidence,” she said. “I feel like last season and seasons before I just wasn’t really confident going into races. I knew I had the talent but I just couldn’t see myself running really fast times.”

Seeded 10th in the 100 this week and eighth in the 200, Abba feels good about her chances of reaching the nationals.

“Looking at where I’m ranked and the trajectory of my PRs and where I’m at, all I have to do is hit where I’m hitting now or better, and I believe I can that I can hit this coming week,” she says in the video above.

The key has been improvement made in the transition phase of her race, which comes after the start at about 30 meters in the 100.

“She had to become more aware of how strong she was in her acceleration,” Harrison said. “Just her strength. She can’t be passive about using that. She’s not necessarily a fast accelerator but she’s a strong one.

“If you learn to accelerate with great force and great intention at 30 meters, they’ll be done. She started believing it.”

“A lot of it is just me being aggressive,” Abba agreed. “And part of that is just being confident that I have the power, I have the strength, I’ve done this many, many times. Just push yourself out and go.”

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The aspect of her race that still needs the most polish is her start. She was a bit slow out of the blocks in both the 100 and 200 at the Pac-12 meet, which put her in an early hole each time.

"That is absolutely the No. 1 issue,” Harrison said of Abba’s starts. “We spend more time, especially this time of the year, working on the first on the first 20-30 meters.”

It’s been a problem for years, Abba admitted. “Since high school, my start has never been good. This year I would say it’s a little bit better,” she said. “The 100 final my start could have been a lot more aggressive. I always get praised for my top-end speed. I want all my speed to be like my top-end speed. Obviously, physically that’s just not possible.”

For all the success Abba has enjoyed this season, she has made the decision to compete at a different school next year.

Abba graduated last week with a degree in Molecular and Cell Biology after earning a spot on the Pac-12 winter academic honor roll. Her long-term career plans at this point involve possibly studying to become an orthodontist.

Abba has not made a decision about whether she will run track post-collegiately. But because of COVID, she gets an additional year of athletic eligibility, which she has decided she will utilize at a new college address.

“Originally, if COVID hadn’t happened, I’d be perfectly fine staying at Cal for my four (seasons). This is my dream school. I’m so happy to be here,” she says in the video above. “But given that COVID has given us that year, I wanted to use it as an opportunity to continue to experience a different aspect of track and field outside of California.

“I’m kind of just seeing what’s outside of the Pac-12, competing against people, let’s say like in the SEC, what that’s like. Just seeing what I can do elsewhere. Seeing how far I can go.”

Abba says she has not yet settled on a new school.

Harrison would love to coach Abba for another season, but understands it’s not his decision.

“Here’s the thing I told her: With all the pressure she’s been getting about that, I want to make her fastest person in the transfer portal.”

Abba concedes that securing a degree in a challenging major in four years while also juggling athletics has been stressful at times. To help relief the stress, Abba said she’s tried to find “zen moments.”

Some of those no doubt have come on the track.

“It’s kind of hard to be humble and just acknowledge what I’ve done,” she said, “but I’m really proud of myself.”

Cover photo of Cal sprinter Ezinne Abba, at left in photo, by Isaac Wasserman

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo