Joseph Fahnbulleh soon will be back at the University of Florida as the fifth-fastest man in the world.
Fahnbulleh, affectionately known as JB, ran a 19.98 and finished fifth in the 200 meters at the Tokyo Olympics, just .36 seconds behind the winner. The 2019 Hopkins High School grad, who was among over 20 Minnesotans competing in the Summer Games, ran for Liberia. The 19-year-old was the youngest in the field.
Upon his return to the States last week, Fahnbulleh was greeted as a conquering hero at the MSP Airport by an enthusiastic contingent of family, friends, and other well-wishers. “I was just expecting my mom and my aunt Rita,” admitted Fahnbulleh in an MSR exclusive interview in the airport baggage area. “It feels good,” he added.
“We’re proud of him,” said JB’s mother Charlotte Graham.
Hopkins Track Coach Nick Lovas was among the greeters. “Words are hard to describe our pride,” he told the MSR of his former sprinter, who holds the Minnesota state high school record in the 200 meters and is a two-time state champ (2018, 2019).
Fahnbulleh in June won the 200 in the NCAA championship and finished second in the SEC championships in May.
Lovas said of JB, “Joe was a special kid as an athlete. Even more so as a young man.” He called Fahnbulleh “a world-class kid. He’s still the same young man that he always was. He’s just doing it on a bigger stage.”
What he accomplished in Tokyo in his first Olympics still hasn’t totally hit him, said Fahnbulleh. “If I could describe it in one word, it’d be crazy, from crazy good to crazy bad. It was just a new experience, and I was fresh.”
“I’ve always told him he’s naturally talented,” said his mom, “so we should thank God for the gift that he has been given and not take it for granted, because it is a gift.”
“It was fun racing against the top,” noted Fahnbulleh. “I was watching them on YouTube two years ago, saying, ‘Dang, I want to race [against them].’ I didn’t expect to be in the final.
“Hard work does pay off,” said JB, “and with God’s grace as well.” Yet the young man refuses to take full credit for his recent feat, or his past on-track accomplishments for that matter, whether locally, domestically, or now internationally.
“My mom has worked so much for me to get me here,” he said. “It’s been a long fight and knowing that I’m one step closer to making her happy. It means a lot, so I will continue to work hard and work my butt off.”
JB’s mother beamed ear-to-ear as her son received hugs and back pats from well-wishers. “I’m a single mom,” said Graham, “but we have a close family that also worked…raising him and keeping him.” She also credits her Wayman AME Church family, many of whom were at the airport last week as well. “He’s been grounded in the church,” she noted.
Fahnbulleh didn’t get the same local mainstream media attention as other Minnesotans at the Olympics save for a column of his semifinals performance in the Star Tribune and on Minnesota Public Radio. Nonetheless, both his native state and Liberia, where his parents emigrated from, are proud.
“The Liberian community has welcomed him,” said Graham. “This is the first time an athlete has made it this far from Liberia, made it to the finals. We’re all excited for him.”
“I’m not saying I’m going to ride this hype wave forever,” said Fahnbulleh, “but the memories will be so etched in stone in me for life.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.