July 19, 2012
By Morgan Bailey
"I want to be an Olympian."
It's a simple phrase made of six simple words, yet this is the mantra of many young athletes. They are the words whispered under their breath at the beginning of every practice and the end of every race. The phrase represents the chance to compete for their country in front of thousands of fans and millions watching on televisions across the world. It's always the dream but rarely the reality.
If there is one thing that you never tell athletes, however, it's that their goals are unattainable. That has always been the case with former University of Michigan women's track stars Geena Gall and Tiffany (Ofili) Porter. The two were college roommates and are now both packing their bags for the 2012 Olympic Games.
The duo stepped onto the University of Michigan campus as freshmen in September of 2006. Gall, a middle-distance standout in high school who held the state record in the 800-meter run and boasted three national titles, and Porter, a state champion in the 100-meter hurdles, 300-meter hurdles, long jump and 4x100 meter relay, were set to be dorm roommates. The Michigan natives competed at the same state meet for years and on the same club team, so they were familiar with each other and had already formed a friendship before they moved into West Quad.
"I always saw Tiffany at the state meet winning championships and state titles, just destroying everyone in the hurdles and long jump," said Gall. "I knew when I committed to Michigan that she was the only other athlete who had signed before me, and I knew that I wanted to be roommates with her in the dorms."
What started as roommates quickly turned into an unbreakable friendship as the duo remained roommates all four years of college.
"We clicked and we were very much alike," Gall recalled of their young friendship. "We were both strong women and always wanted to be the best, win races and break records."
To say that they always wanted to win is an understatement. Gall and Porter went on to have two of the most decorated athletic careers in Michigan women's track history and were pivotal members of the "greatest class ever" in program history.
Gall, the NCAA outdoor 800-meter run champion in 2008 and '09, finished second at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
In her time at Michigan, from 2006-09, Gall was a two-time national champion and 10-time Big Ten champion and still holds six school records in various indoor and outdoor events. Never falling in the shadow of her roommate, Porter was a five-time national champion and nine-time Big Ten champion and currently holds three school records.
With the help of the dynamic duo, Michigan won the Big Ten team title twice and finished in the top three of the Big Ten every year Gall and Porter competed for the Maize and Blue. The Wolverines also finished among the top 15 at the NCAA Championships all four years, placing as high as third during the 2007 outdoor and 2008 indoor seasons.
As Porter reflects on her favorite memories with Gall, she has several to choose from.
"Off the track, we were such good friends and hung out all of the time," said Porter. "On the track, being part of the greatest class ever, both of us being captains together, it was huge. I was pleased to be able to share that with her, being my teammate and my really close friend."
Perhaps most importantly to Porter, Gall takes credit for introducing her to the man she is now married to, fellow Michigan hurdler extraordinaire Jeffrey Porter (2004-07). In May 2011, Gall was a bridesmaid in the couple's wedding.
Considering the immense success that the roommates achieved throughout their collegiate careers, it was no surprise that they both continued their athletic careers professionally. Porter signed a contract with adidas and continued her training in Ann Arbor, while Gall moved to Eugene, Ore., to train with Oregon Track Club Elite. As far as the Olympics go, however, their sights had been set on that goal for years.
"I remember back when I was nine years old watching the 1996 Atlanta Games and seeing Michael Johnson with his gold spikes, winning and surrounded by U.S. flags," reflected Gall. "That was the first moment when I realized I wanted to go to the Olympics and represent the United States. The last couple of years were when I really started believing in myself that I could be the best in the United States in the 800 meters and make the Olympic team this year."
And the feeling of knowing she finally made her dream come true?
"It was the best feeling in the world," she said. "It was the biggest sigh of relief. I couldn't believe it."
Porter similarly has had Olympic dreams since she was a little girl.
"I have dreamt about going to the Olympics for as long as I can remember," she said. "Since childhood, honestly I remember watching the Olympic Games with my dad and saying 'You know what, I want to do that.' He looked me straight in the eye very seriously and said 'Tiffany, if you work hard and believe in yourself, you can do it.' Ever since then, it has seriously been a dream of mine."
Porter collected three outdoor NCAA hurdles titles (2007-09) in addition to two indoor crowns (2008-09).
It hasn't been a smooth path to London for either athlete, however. After moving to Oregon, Gall struggled with knee problems and sacroiliac joint pain and became severely anemic in the winter of 2010.
"That year was so hard and I really struggled," Gall said. "I tried so hard in practices to run hard, but I could never finish workouts. It's how you bounce back after you go through hard times that really determines that you are a champion and that you want it that bad. I really wanted it. I promised myself that I was going to bounce back and rebound from the 2010 season and run the best I ever had in 2011. You just have to keep a positive mentality throughout it all."
More so than persevering through injuries, Porter had to balance her athletic career with her education. In 2012, she graduated with her doctorate degree from the University of Michigan's College of Pharmacy.
"For me, the thing that I am most proud of is the fact that I was able to achieve both of my dreams," she said. "It has always been my dream to be a pharmacist and an Olympic athlete. So far in 2012 I have achieved both of those goals, and it's not over yet."
The next time the former roommates will see each other is at the Olympic Village in London. Having dual citizenship since birth, Porter will represent Great Britain in the 100-meter hurdles, while Gall will be representing the United States in the 800-meter run. The Olympians have been in contact with each other since they made their respective teams, and they could not be happier for each other.
"Our dreams have come true and all of the hard work has paid off," said Gall. "We are definitely keeping in touch, and I am very excited to see her in London when I get to the Olympic Village."
Despite turning in the Maize and Blue for the colors of their respective countries, these two roommates have remained close friends and continue to dominate their athletic events. They are no longer simply college superstars or professional athletes -- they are Olympians.