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Niyo: Michigan's Ofili sisters, Porter share Olympic glory

John Niyo
The Detroit News
American Jeff Porter kicked off his Olympic run Monday by qualifying for Tuesday's semifinals in the 110-meter hurdles.

Rio de Janeiro — Footsteps are made to be followed. And heard, for that matter.

But this sibling rivalry that’ll be on display beginning today at the track inside Rio’s Olympic Stadium isn’t the whole story.

It’s only two-thirds of it, with the Ofili sisters, Tiffany and Cindy — both Ypsilanti natives and former Michigan stars — competing in the women’s 100-meter hurdles, and Tiffany’s husband, two-time U.S. Olympian Jeff Porter, running in the semifinals of the men’s 110 hurdles after getting through qualifying heats Monday.

“Think about it,” said the 30-year-old Porter, who, like his wife, is a former track All-American at Michigan. “If somebody told you that your wife and her sister were going to compete at the Olympics at the same time, you wouldn’t believe it.”

And then if they told you that you’d be joining them, qualifying after another photo finish at your country’s Olympic Trials, well, that’s why they have drug testing, right?

“I mean, what are the odds of something like this?” laughed Porter, whose third-place finish at the U.S. Trials — by .01 seconds — completed this family affair in Rio. “You can’t script this stuff any better than that. We’re just ecstatic.”

So is their family in Michigan, where the Ofili clan — parents Felix and Lillian and brothers Frank and Alex — likely will be busy juggling the TV remote and online live streams.

In all, there could be as many as eight races to watch in a span of 48 hours. Today’s schedule begins with Cindy’s opening heat at 10:19 a.m. ET, followed by Tiffany at 11:26. Jeff Porter will run his semifinal just before 8 p.m., with the final scheduled for 9:45. The semifinals and final for the women are Wednesday night. All three athletes have posted times ranked in the top 12 in the world this year in their event.

But no matter what, “we are so proud of all of them,” said Felix Ofili, a Nigerian who lived for years with his London-born wife, Lillian, before moving to the U.S. so she could pursue her education degree at Eastern Michigan. “It’s a special moment for the family.”

The Ofili sisters, Cindy, left, and Tiffany, shared some quality time with Tiffany’s husband, Jeff Porter.

‘Ready to beat her sister’

Frank, the eldest son, was born in London, and while the sisters were born in Michigan, they both compete internationally for their mother’s Great Britain. In Tiffany’s case, it was a difficult decision made a bit easier by some frustration she felt after coming up short at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. (Damu Cherry, a hurdler previously banned for steroid use, made the team.)

Tiffany dealt with some backlash before the 2012 Olympics, the tabloids in London labeling her and others “Plastic Brits.” But Cindy had little hesitation in following her sister’s lead last summer, before her senior season at Michigan, competing for Great Britain, a country that cheers and funds its track athletes like royalty compared to other nations.

And why not? She’s been mimicking her big sis most of her life.

“They look alike, they talk alike, they gesture alike, they act alike,” said James Henry, Michigan’s longtime track coach who tutored both.

And they compete alike, which is where things are getting interesting now that Cindy has finished her college eligibility and turned pro.

“She’s ready to beat her sister,” Henry said. “She wants to beat her. Who doesn’t want to beat their sister? … But Tiffany, she says, ‘That’s my sister. I can’t let my sister beat me. No matter what, I can’t let my sister beat me.’ ”

She hasn’t yet, in a handful of head-to-head races, but Cindy is gaining ground, most recently at the British Olympic trials, when Porter, now 28 and likely nearing retirement, hung on to beat her in a photo finish by .02 seconds.

“We don’t talk before the races — we’re such competitors,” Cindy said. “We’re just into our zone until we pass that line.”

But, adds Jeff Porter, “the beautiful thing is watching them come together after they compete. It’s just a genuine love. It’s a fierce, competitive nature on the track, but as soon as they step off the track, it’s back to sisterly love.”

Jeff Porter and the Ofili sisters, his wife, Tiffany, and her sister Cindy, met running for the Michigan track team. The Ofilis are Ypsilanti natives.

‘We really did this’

And sisterly advice, as Cindy steps into what Henry calls the “dog-eat-dog” world of professional athletics, “Because now you’re not running for a scholarship — you’re running for a paycheck.”

Brotherly advice, too, as Porter, who likely is done competing after this Olympics are over, offers counsel along the way, which they all find a bit funny now, considering how this whole triumvirate came together in the first place.

Porter was a junior on the Michigan men’s track team when Tiffany arrived as an eager freshman, and when the two would run hurdles together in practice, she’d routinely come to Henry to complain, “I don’t like that boy.”

“I was very, very loud,” Porter laughs. “Very obnoxious.”

And yet, somehow, Henry knew. He’d tell Tiffany, “You just watch, you’re gonna marry him someday.” Sure enough, Porter toned it down, Tiffany took notice, and they began dating. Just after Christmas in 2010, Porter, a New Jersey native, proposed on the rink at Rockefeller Center in New York City. They were married the following May.

Now they live in Canton, though their track schedules have kept them separated for weeks and months at a time. Tiffany trained with her coach in the Netherlands much of this spring and summer, while Jeff gets his workouts in back in Ann Arbor, where he serves as a special projects coordinator for the Michigan athletic department while pursuing a Ph.D. in education at Eastern Michigan.

Even here at the Olympic athletes’ village, they’re living in separate buildings, just as they did four years ago in London, where both reached the semifinals in their events. But they still find time to see each other, whether it’s for meals, or some down time between training sessions. And the other night, when they all gathered for a photo with the giant Olympic rings in the village, they all had the same thought.

“Wow,” Porter said, laughing again. “we really did this.”