Staying Sharp

Written by Monique Bowman

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

This proverb is often used to describe friendship, however it’s easily applied in other areas of life as well. The Ohio State University women’s track & field program, specifically the throwers, are the personification of this verse. In addition to earning its second straight conference title, the team is said to be the only one with two active national champions in throwing events on the roster in Sade Olatoye and Adelaide Aquilla.

Assistant coach and team recruiting coordinator, Ashley Kovacs, leads the throwers and has built an outstanding group within the program. In her seven seasons, she has mentored 14 Big Ten Conference champions—both men and women—and has had two of her athletes named either Big Ten Athlete of the Year of Athlete of the Championship six times.

The foundation of her coaching philosophy: honesty.

Our core value as a team is get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

“I think it’s really about being honest with yourself and what your weaknesses are. ‘This makes me uncomfortable’ or ‘I know I shut down when…’ And sharing those vulnerabilities with your coaches and teammates so they can hold you accountable to get better,” Kovacs explains. “Don’t hide from your weaknesses, but embrace them and allow others to help you get better. Our core value as a team is get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Cultivating a dichotomous environment that upholds excellence and vulnerability is what makes Kovacs highly respected in the track and field community. Prior to Ohio State, she spent two seasons at Western Kentucky University, where she guided the WKU women to 10 of the Top 25 throwing marks in the school’s history.

As a student-athlete at the University of Kentucky, Kovacs was a four-time All-American, an 11-time All-SEC selection and a runner-up in shot put at the 2010 NCAA Indoor Championships. All of that experience she brings into the Buckeye system and imparts wisdom on her hungry athletes.

“You have to have a certain mindset to hold up championship medals and trophies. I tell my throwers all the time the mistakes I made as a student-athlete so they don’t make the same ones,” Kovacs says. “It’s something that’s really important to me—to share both accomplishments and disappointments so they can mentally handle competition the way they do.”

Handling the physical and mental demands of competition is something Buckeye throwers do very well. Take Olatoye as a recent example. She is finishing her final outdoor season and is one of the greatest student athletes to ever wear the Scarlet and Gray.

“There are few times in life you daydream about something and how it could go, and it exceeds your expectations. Sade is that and she became beyond what I could’ve thought,” Kovacs says. “Great student. Great athlete. Explosive. Fearless. The hotter the fire, the brighter she shines.”

Olatoye shines on both the domestic and international stages. She holds the school record for the most Big Ten championships (seven), is a national champion, a 2020 NCAA Woman of the Year nominee and the 2021 Big Ten Medal of Honor recipient. On top of that, she represented Nigeria at the 2019 African Games, finishing first in the shot put and third in the hammer throw. She’s now aiming for a spot at the 2021 Olympics.

“There’s no such thing as setting goals too high. I want to set the bar higher,” Olatoye explains. “I look to the left and right, and know I can do better. I’m not okay with being okay.”

That drive and competitive spirit was fostered from a young age at home. A first-generation Nigerian American, Olatoye was surrounded by loved ones who were inherently competitors, go-getters and achievers.

“I learned that if you put your mind to something, there will be obstacles and how you get through those moments make you who you are. Always set goals. Always be the best in the classroom and in competition. That helped me build my championship mindset.”

That mindset fits in well with a throwers group that raises the standard, only to surpass that limit time and time again. Greatness produces greatness, as each generation of Buckeye athletes compete against themselves and their teammates in preparation for weekly meets. Former walk-on Aquilla saw this mindset and wanted to be a part of it.

“I was originally between Ohio State, James Madison and Miami (Ohio), then narrowed it to Miami and Ohio State. I had better scholarship opportunities elsewhere but competing against top athletes all the time at Ohio State, I saw that as a better opportunity for growth,” Aquilla recalls.

Working alongside Kovacs and Olatoye has proven to be the best all-around experience for Aquilla. She is the 2021 Big Ten indoor and outdoor shot put champion, the 2021 NCAA indoor shot put champion, and was a 2020 NCAA indoor All-American in the shot put with the nation’s third-longest throw (17.82).

As she grew as an athlete, she also grew as a student. Aquilla recalls that her freshman and sophomore years, she was the “most unorganized person ever.” But in her junior year she had a turning point. Olatoye couldn’t compete in an indoor competition, so Aquilla had to step up to score for the team. From there, she got back on track planning out her days, getting homework done, and staying organized and task focused.

“I’m more of a leader now. It goes to show that hard work pays off and you’ll reap the rewards of your hard work,” Aquilla says. “As an Ohio State athlete, you really have to trust the process. You have to push yourself in all aspects: academically, athletically and mentally. There are different layers to who you are as an athlete and adding to those layers is how you become a world-class athlete.”

Kovacs, Olatoye and Aquilla all credit the competitive, focused and encouraging environment as a key piece to Ohio State’s success. Each see the potential in the other and holds one another accountable to surpassing that potential. Every practice is another opportunity to compete, further strengthening the world-class mentality needed to go against the best in the country and the best in the world.

Two national champions, alongside graduate transfer Divine Oladipo, are a powerful force heading into the 2021 NCAA outdoor track and field championships in Eugene, Ore. A transfer from the University of Connecticut who is working on her master’s in accounting, Oladipo scored points at indoor and outdoor Big Ten Championships, with three top-six finishes. Olatoye, Aquilla and Oladipo are three of eight female athletes representing the Ohio State women across 10 events.

Looking ahead, Kovacs applauds the way her throwers have worked to be the best they can be.

“It’s a testament to their hard work and how they’re willing to push themselves that has got them this far and beyond. They are great teammates, great training partners and great leaders,” Kovacs says. “It’s that discipline to push yourself that elevated both of them.”

Elite athletes working with other elite athletes produce champions, as evidenced by Ohio State throwers and the track and field program as a whole.

Striking iron against iron has no choice other than to become sharper.