by Lou Mancinelli and Len Lear
When many of us watch the 2016 Olympics next year in Rio DeJaneiro, we will definitely have a local lass to cheer for. Nia Sifaatihii Ali, who will be 27 in October of this year, is one of the world’s best female track and field athletes and is given a chance to win medals in more than one event.
Nia specializes in the 100-meter hurdles, heptathlon and other events. As a student-athlete at the University of Southern California, Ali was the 2011 NCAA leader and NCAA champion in the 100-meter hurdles in a time of 12.63 seconds. Ali previously competed for the Tennessee Volunteers, where she was Southeastern Conference champion in the heptathlon, and at USC she was an All-American in the heptathlon.
Ali was selected to represent the U.S. in Shenzhen, China, for the World University Games, where she won the gold medal in a time of 12.85 seconds. In 2013 Ali won the Indoor U.S. Championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In March of 2014, at the Indoor Track World Championships in Sopot, Poland, Ali won gold in the women’s 60-meter hurdles, beating 2012 London Olympics women’s 100-meter gold medalist, Australian Sally Pearson. Thus, Olympic gold is a real possibility, although Ali told us, “It was something that seemed so far fetched once upon a time.”
Nia grew up in Germantown. (Her mom still lives there). She bounced around elementary schools — Houston, Henry and The Lotus School; then for middle school she went to Amy Northwest, a magnet school. She lived in Germantown until after her junior year of high school, when she moved to Pleasantville, NJ.
She transferred to Pleasantville High School (’06), where her uncle was the head track coach, to focus on running so she could get recruited by a Division 1 university. Before that, she spent her freshman and junior years at West Catholic High School and her sophomore year at Dobbins in North Philly.
In addition to her track and field exploits, she danced and played basketball (she was on the AAU team, Philly Bells) and softball but was not being recruited until she made the senior year switch to Pleasantville.
“I saw my best friends were getting letters from colleges. They were getting recruited, and I wasn’t,” she told us in an interview earlier this year. “My uncle has always been a disciplinarian, someone who’s very focused. I felt like I would be challenged more physically, mentally and emotionally at Pleasantville High School.”
Ali said the Philly public school system was brutal. “Dobbins, when I got there, was completely out of control.” Her mom had to call the shots and make her get out of Dobbins. “In the long run, if I stayed there, my opportunities wouldn’t have been as great. It was really easy to slip through the cracks at Dobbins.”
Nia started dancing when she was 2 — ballet, jazz, contemporary and other styles. Her mother had been a dancer with a troupe called La Cole de Jouettes. “I came out of the womb dancing,” Nia said.
When she was 5 or 6, Nia used to go to her babysitter’s house, where she would always race a boy two years older than herself and win. So the boy’s mom told her she had to join the Mallery Challengers Track Club; the boy she beat was actually the cousin of the Challengers’ coach. So she joined.
Some of her Challengers’ teammates are still running and have gone professional, such as Nicole Leach, who went to UCLA, and her best friend, LaTavia Thomas, who went to LSU. Ali now lives in Los Angeles, where she had moved to attend USC.
She had numerous scholarship offers to the nation’s top track schools for women. She went to the University of Tennessee as a freshman but transferred to USC after one year. “I wasn’t happy with the atmosphere (in Tennessee),” said Nia, who graduated from USC in 2011 with a degree in psychology.
Despite her success academically and athletically, Nia is no stranger to tragedy. On April 21, 2009, her father, Aleem Ali, a Philadelphia human services supervisor, drove to the home of his mistress, Angela Jefferys, and then shot and killed her in front of her 11-year-old daughter. He then turned the gun on himself.
Nia’s short-term reaction was “to just completely turn all my energy to track.” After the track season, though, “I kind of crashed and didn’t want to do anything at all.” She red-shirted the following year. “People thought that I wouldn’t be able to come back because I didn’t step on a track one time.”
She did return after one year, however, with a great deal of assistance from her mother, Melita Johnson, director of a special education school in the city, and her grandmother. Nia came back with a laser beam focus on becoming a professional. The difference in being a professional, she said, is that it is entirely a matter of individual achievement; there is no team except in the world championships and the Olympics. “And they run tons of meets overseas.”
To qualify for 2016 Olympics in Rio, Nia will have to finish in the top 3 at the 2016 Outdoor USA championships in whatever event(s) she decides to compete in.
After her athletic career is over, Nia wants to be an adolescent psychiatrist, although “some pro women runners can run until past their mid-30s.”
Nia wants to give a shout-out to Jackie Joyner Kersie, a mentor who was one of the greatest female track athletes of the last half-century, and Carol Smith, her coach at Tennessee who is now coach at USC. And Nia insists that her main competition is not anyone else but herself. “I would say 90 percent is probably me versus me, and the other 10 percent is just getting out there.”
More information at www.facebook.com/public/Nia-Ali