In Afia Charles’ childhood home in Greenbelt, Md., photos of her mother’s glory days are scattered throughout the house.
Ruperta, a native of Antigua, was a four-year letterwinner as a sprinter for Howard University in the early 1980s and capped her career at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, competing in the 100 and 200 meters and the 4×400 relay.
Charles, who just finished her sophomore year at UCF, was aware of her mother’s success but never paid much attention to it. Little did she know that nearly three decades after her mother’s appearance at the Summer Games, she would be following in her footsteps.
“When I was younger I didn’t really think it was a big deal. The first time I really ever sat down and watched the Olympics was 2008,” Charles said. “I would never have imagined in the next four years that I’d be going. It hasn’t hit me yet, but when it hits me, I’ll probably end up crying.”
A dual-citizen with Antigua, Charles will head to London on July 26 as part of the country’s national team to compete in the 400 meters as UCF’s first track and field Olympian. The news that she would be headed to London came as quite a shock.
After helping UCF to its third-straight Conference USA Outdoor championship and competing in the NCAA East Preliminaries, Charles thought her season was finished so she went home for a break. She watched her teammates and her training partner, DeeDee Trotter, compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials from her living room before returning to Orlando for Summer B classes.
Then she received a phone call from her mother, who said that Antigua invited Charles to travel to London as part of its national team. Charles has raced for Antigua since high school when she first picked up the sport, and her biggest international achievement to date was capturing the bronze medal at last year’s CARIFTA Games.
She was hesitant about accepting the offer because she had stopped all training for nearly a month and didn’t know if she would be ready in time to compete. Her mother urged her to go.
“I said it’s a good opportunity, just go and do your best. The only thing they ask of you is to PR. Just PR and take it as far as you can go. Enjoy every minute of it. There’s nothing like going to the Olympics,” Ruperta said. “My experience overall was very humbling and was well worth all the training and time and effort that was put into preparing for the Games.”
Even though she had a lot of lost time to make up for, she had one of the best possible resources in her corner: Trotter.
Knights track and field head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert has been training Trotter, an Olympic gold and bronze medalist, since October at the UCF Track and Field Complex to prepare her for her third Olympic Games. As the only consistent 400-runner on the team, Charles has served as Trotter’s running partner for the past eight months.
“She has been a fantastic training partner,” Trotter said. “We push each other. There are days that I don’t feel great and Afia is handing me left and right whoopings in the blocks and the 100s. On those days, I need her. And on every other day she needs me. We’ve definitely been encouraging to one another.”
Trotter said Charles has come a long way from the timid-style of a runner she was when she first met her.
“She was cruising through her day-to-day routines without any drive or motivation. That all changed when I came out there and whipped her butt a few times,” Trotter said with a smile. “I think one day we were running a 500 and I don’t really run 500s, but this young lady has a history of running 500-meter workouts. One day she finally beat me in a 500. I think she felt good about that. In my mind I’m saying, that’s cool but you know that’s never going to happen again. It really caused her to step up her game when she had someone to run with and that person wasn’t going to let her coast around the track. She had to work. She didn’t shy away from it.”
Their relationship is hardly just business. It is also one of emotional support and growth. They have leaned on each other with had numerous talks over the past year, and Trotter hopes her role as a mentor has helped spark Charles to chase her goals.
“I want her to recognize her capability and her true level of talent. I think she’s starting to see her true self and now she won’t accept anything less,” Trotter said. “I hope what came out of all our talks is that she can do pretty much anything she puts her mind to and that if she works really hard she will reap the benefits to that. I think that message has gotten across to her.”
With the Olympics less than two weeks away, Charles steps onto UCF’s track every day for her early-morning workouts focused on the task at hand and careful to not look too far ahead. Still, it’s hard not to dream about the experience.
“I’m most excited about having fun and running my best race. Just to soak it all in,” Charles said. “To see people that are considered the greats. I can be there. I just have to make sure that I run my race, focus on me and not overthink.”