Mike Mantucca / Naperville SunMorolake Akinosun speaks at Waubonsie Valley in Aurora on Oct. 7, 2016. (Mike Mantucca / Naperville Sun)
Olympic gold medalist Morolake Akinosun walked through the halls of Waubonsie Valley, amazed at how little had changed at her high school alma mater other than the shade of green on the walls.
"That's the corner where I used to hang out," she said, pointing to a spot outside the cafeteria near the doors to the gym. "I heard you can't sit on the floor anymore."
Akinosun's return to the Aurora school Friday included an early-morning pep rally followed by a chance for the young woman – who medaled with the 400-meter relay team at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer – to impart the wisdom she's acquired since running track for Waubonsie more than four years ago.
Her first piece of advice to the overflowing crowd of students from Aurora and Naperville gathered in the Warrior Room was listen to your parents.
"They see things you can't see," she said. "In high school I thought I was on the top of the world."
In Akinosun's case, her parents – Olawale and Foluke Akinosun – encouraged her to consider going to the University of Illinois, which at the time was coached by Tonja Buford-Bailey.
"I wouldn't be where I am today without my parents; they pushed me to U of I," she said.
Her parents saw Buford-Bailey as a good fit to coach their daughter, something Akinosun said she didn't understand at the time.
It didn't take long, however, for her to see they were right and she ended up following Buford-Bailey to the University of Texas in Austin when the coach took a job there. Akinosun would finish her collegiate career as a Texas Longhorn in spring 2016 and graduate with a degree in exercise science.
Olympics gold medalist honored as she comes home to Aurora
Akinosun admitted it was three years before she told her parents they were right.
Becoming an elite athlete who can compete at the Olympic level requires serious dedication. She attributes her success to a philosophy of viewing herself as an athlete-student instead of student-athlete.
"I always put track and field first, and then comes school," Akinosun said. A social life comes last.
"It's about sacrifices. You can't be on the track team unless you're eligible," she said. "It's hard a balance to finesse."
Akinosun said she often found herself hanging out with other people who studied on Friday nights.
Making athletics a top priority meant committing fully, regardless of how she might feel on a given day.
"I never missed a training session in my four years in college," she said. "It's my job; it's what I do. Consider that when you want to sleep in."
Promoting team success can be challenge because so many track and field events are for individuals.
“You're always focusing on yourself. How do you flip the switch from myself, myself, myself," she said.
Akinosun said having a training partner is invaluable, and she could count on Courtney Okolo, a University of Texas and Olympic teammate.
"We always held ourselves accountable to each other," whether it was school work, eating, going out or training, she said.
"It's kind of selfish. I make sure Courtney does what she needs to do because it helps me," Akinosun said of the arrangement that works both ways.
Although Akinosun's journey to gold was embroiled in a bit of controversy at the time, she views it as a blessing now.
At first it appeared the American team dropped the baton during a transfer. A review on appeal showed a Jamaican runner had crossed over, causing the mishap.
Akinosun and her teammates would qualify in a race by themselves later that day. She would be replaced in the finals, but received a gold medal for her contribution.
Rerunning the race was more like a glorified practice, only the entire world was watching this time, she said.
"The U.S. would not have gotten to shine if it happened as it was supposed to," she said.
Akinosun also attributes her success to the coaches who are able to see and understand the bigger picture.
"Focus on the goal, not on the pain" is something the Olympian said her college coach once advised and she continues to follow to this day.
When asked what best advice Waubonsie coach Dave Gowing ever gave, Akinosun smiled: "Run fast and turn left."