TOKYO — Entering the turn of the men's 200-meter semifinals on Tuesday night at Olympic Stadium, Hopkins graduate Joe Fahnbulleh found himself vying for fourth place.
Then he hit the straightaway.
Three strides out of second place and an automatic berth in Wednesday's final, Fahnbulleh, racing for Liberia, seemed to lengthen his prodigious stride and pump even harder with his powerful upper body.
He overtook American Noah Lyles, who looked like a certain winner. He finished just behind Canada's Aaron Brown. All three finished in 19.99 seconds, with Brown and Fahnbulleh guaranteeing they will race again for a medal. Lyles, the reigning world champion in the event, also made the final, based on his time.
"I'm on the big stage and making a name for myself,'' Fahnbulleh said. "Pretty good. I knew I wasn't going to back down. You know, I've been ready. I've been saying to myself, ever since nationals, ever since my high school career, I can run with the best. Give me a chance.''
Fahnbulleh was the National High School Coaches track and field athlete of the year as a senior at Hopkins. At the University of Florida this spring, he became the national outdoor champion in the 200.
He had never before traveled overseas and said his legs were weary, but he finished in a dead heat with two acclaimed sprinters. "And I'm only 19,'' he pointed out.
"I showed you all and now I have a day to rest,'' Fahnbulleh said. "I didn't panic. If you watched nationals, I came up on the curve, oh, sixth. I don't care. I'm confident in my finishing speed.
"I know I can do that against them, and they are pros and they are on a different level. That does not mean that I'm not. My main thing is that I'm blessed. I'm here, I'm happy. No matter the outcome, I'm so happy.''
Fahnbulleh raved about the support he has received from Liberia and Minnesota. His parents emigrated from Liberia to Minnesota.
"It's been a dream,'' he said. "It's been work. I've been telling them, I'm going to make the Olympics, and here I am. I'm chasing my dream.''
And catching it. His immediate goal: Compete with the world's best on Wednesday. His intermediary goal: Run a 19.5. His long-term goal: Run a 19.1.
The world record is 19.19 by Usain Bolt. Then he made a promise to his mother.
"My journey has just begun,'' he said. "I'm not done. You know, I'm only 19. Mom, I love you. And I got you. Just wait. All those nights working doubles, coming home tired and having to wake up early the next day? I got you. Don't worry.''