Looking back on their track careers, Gophers seniors Obsa Ali and Temi Ogunrinde can hardly believe they’re the Big Ten’s best in their respective events. Four years ago, they had no clue about the steeplechase and hammer throw.

Steeplechase horses jump fences, but Ali had to learn to clear hurdles and water jumps that can lead to epic falls.

“It terrified me at first,” said Ali, the 2018 NCAA champion in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

And hammer throw? Instead of wielding something that made Thor powerful in the “Avengers” movies, Ogunrinde swings a metal ball on the end of a steel wire and unleashes it — for distance.

“Many people think you’re throwing an actual hammer,” said Ogunrinde, a three-time Big Ten champion in the event. “The name is truly misleading.”

Ogunrinde and Ali are in events unfamiliar to them when they came to the Gophers, but their teammates will follow their lead Wednesday to start the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Austin, Texas.

Ali will try to become the first Gopher in 70 years to repeat as a national champion in track. He was nearly speechless last year after winning a race in which the runaway leader, Houston’s Brian Barazza, took a nasty fall over a hurdle in the final 300 meters of the race.

“I’ll forever remember that,” Ali said. “As far as defending the title, that’s the goal. You never know what will happen in these races.”

‘It was terrifying’

Learning to run the steeplechase as a redshirt sophomore with the Gophers in 2017, Ali’s biggest obstacle was his fear of the water jumps. Seven of the 28 hurdles in the 3000-meter steeplechase are followed by a water pit, about 12 feet wide and 28 inches deep.

Jumping into sand pits for practice made him forget about landing in water in the actual race.

“We held back a lot throughout the years,” Ali said. “It was terrifying at first because the landing was slanted a little bit. I was like, ‘What if I just break my leg there?’ I broke my [left] foot in the seventh grade bike riding, so I was very hesitant landing on that foot. After I messed up, we would just do it again and again and again.”

Ali used repetition to improve, much like he worked to pick up English when moving from Ethiopia to Minnesota to live with his mother at age 12.

Distance running is huge in his native country and came naturally to him, but soccer was his first love. He didn’t join Richfield’s cross-country team until his sophomore year, but he finished his high school career with a cross-country state title and state track records in the 3,200 and 5,000 meters.

“Working hard is what I got from my mom,” Ali said. “She moved here in 1998 and left everything behind for me to have this life. So that’s really inspiring for me in everything I do and everything I want to do.”

Big change for sprinter

Like Ali, Ogunrinde dreams of earning a spot on the national team after her college track career ends, but she never imagined years ago that path would be in a field event.

The Cottage Grove native was recruited by the Gophers as a sprinter out of Park High in 2014. The only experience she had in a throwing event was when she tried shot put for a week as a high school sophomore.

Ogunrinde didn’t resist when Gophers coaches recommended the hammer throw to her as a redshirt freshman, because she expected to still compete in other events. She eventually realized hammer was her best chance to succeed, because most of the athletes in the event are first-timers.

“The first few months for me in hammer, I didn’t even actually have the hammer,” she said. “We used a PVC pipe to learn the movements. It can be very difficult to make it feel natural, but you eventually get there.”

This spring, Ogunrinde became the first woman to three-peat as the Big Ten hammer throw champion with a meet-record mark of 221 feet, 2 inches.

With the Gophers men’s and women’s track teams combined for the first time at the NCAA outdoor meet, Ali and Ogunrinde look forward to watching younger athletes get their first such experience.

“That’s what really makes this year special,” Ogunrinde said. “It’s a bittersweet and fun ending for the seniors like Obsa and I, but then it shows just so much of the potential we have moving forward in the next few years.”