Niyo: Michigan's Ofili sisters finish memorable Olympic journey

John Niyo
Brianna Rollins leads an American sweep in the 100 hurdles, leaving Great Britain’s Cindy Ofili, left, in fourth. Ofili if from Ypsilanti.

Rio de Janeiro — One sister plans on coming back, the other isn’t so sure. But both will remember this trip forever.

Michigan’s Ofili sisters — Tiffany and Cindy, both of Ypsilanti — saw their tag-team Olympic dream all the way to finish line Wednesday night at Rio’s Olympic Stadium.

The two former Michigan All-Americans — separated by six years, eight months, 23 days and very little else — advanced to the Olympic final in the women’s 100-meter hurdles.

The sisters, competing for their mother’s native Great Britain, did not win a medal, but they came achingly close as 22-year-old Cindy Ofili finished fourth, .02 seconds away from the bronze. Tiffany (Ofili) Porter finished seventh, but afterward called the race “a relief” after a long, trying season for both sisters, one battling to regain her top form internationally and the other grinding her way through her senior season at Michigan before embarking on her own professional career — and her first Olympics.

“I’m proud of myself,” she said. “But more importantly, I’m really proud of how my sister handled herself today. … She and I are each other’s biggest competitors. But at the same time, we’re each other’s biggest supporters. So having her alongside me to experience this, I think it’s a bit bittersweet now. But I think we’ll appreciate it a lot more in the years to come.”

A trio of American hurdlers — Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali and Kristi Castlin — were the favorites coming in, and those three swept the medals as Castlin beat Ofili with a lean at the line. The U.S. put three runners in the Olympic final in this event for the third consecutive Olympics.

From left, bronze medalist Kristi Castlin, gold medalist Brianna Rollins and silver medalist Nia Ali gave the Americans the sweep in the 100 hurdles.

But 40 percent of the rest of the field grew up in the same house in Ypsilanti. It was there, as a young child watching the Olympics on television, that the eldest daughter turned to her father, Felix, who’d run track and played soccer at a university in his native Nigeria a generation ago, and said she wanted to be an Olympian. He told her anything was possible if she worked hard enough.

And it was there four years ago, watching on TV as her sister made good on that promise at the 2012 London Olympics, that Cindy Ofili realized she could be an Olympian, too.

“Just to see her there, and see her accomplish her dream that she always had, it was just very motivating for me,” said Cindy, a five-time Big Ten champ who broke most of her sister’s records at Michigan. “And I thought, ‘If I continue to go the route I am, I can be there one day.'”

Tiffany, 28, who married former Michigan track star Jeff Porter in 2011, struggled with an injury in the run-up to London in 2012 and failed to reach the final. But it still was a memorable trip as she and her husband — also a sprint hurdle specialist — both competed at those Olympics.

He was in Rio, too, back for a second go-around, just like his wife. And while Porter’s run ended Tuesday night with a 10th in the 110 hurdles semifinals in what was likely the 30-year-old’s last race as a professional, “This was a huge family affair,” Tiffany said.

“I’m just so proud of him, and proud of my sister, too,” she added.

Relieved, too, after a difficult season with some frustrating performances, which continued early Wednesday night.

Ypsilanti's Tiffany Porter, who runs for her mother's native Great Britain, had to wait to see if her semifinal time was good enough to get to the 100 hurdles final. It was.

Both sisters had advanced through Tuesday’s opening-round heats. But only the top two finishers in each of Wednesday’s three semifinals — along with the next two fastest times — would make the final.

Tiffany Porter was first to go, but a fourth-place finish (12.82) in her semifinal immediately put her on the bubble. A crashed-out hurdler in the second semifinal might’ve given her a reprieve, as the third-place finisher in that heat was .09 seconds slower than Porter. Then came Cindy’s turn, and the very real possibility that little sis could knock big sis out of the final.

Instead, Ofili, whose elite finishing speed makes up for some slow starts, raced to a second-place finish (12.71) behind Castlin to grab an automatic spot. And with Norway’s Isabelle Pederson third in 12.88, it meant Porter was through, too.

She’d waited out near the track to watch, and as she came through the mixed zone with a Great Britain team official, she was still processing all the drama. (“Oh, my God,” she said, more than once.)

Tiffany Porter is getting closer to retirement, too. And she’d always joked she would quit just as soon as her younger sister beat her in a head-to-head race. They’d raced a handful of times the last two years, and at the British Olympic trials it took a photo finish to confirm Tiffany had edged Cindy by .02 seconds for first.

Wednesday night, it was a full .13 in favor of Cindy, though, and Tiffany laughed when reminded what that meant.

“Yeah, she made me eat my words,” she said. “But I don’t think this is quite it for me yet.”

Besides, that tongue-in-cheek threat was always meant partly as a confidence-builder for the younger Ofili. James Henry, the longtime Michigan track coach, used to encourage Cindy by telling her, “You’ve run against your sister so many times. She’s one of the best. If you can do that, you can run against anybody.”

And he was right, obviously, as both settled into the blocks Wednesday night, Tiffany in Lane 2 and Cindy in Lane 7. Beforehand, they’d held hands in the call room, saying a quick prayer before heading out the track for pre-race introductions. Afterward, they embraced before leaving the track together.

“It’s a bit hard to process at the moment,” said Ofili, who signed an endorsement deal with adidas this summer, just like her sister, and knows this performance will open many more opportunities. “But once I go home I think I’ll be able to figure out what I just did. Being here with Tiffany has been a great experience.”

And one neither will forget.

“She’s guided me so much,” Ofili said. “She’s given me so much advice, what to do and what not to do. Even with college, we’ve gone through the same experiences for the past six years.

“It’s been so helpful, just to see her thrive and do so well and know that one day that could be me. I look up to her in a lot of ways. She’s been my inspiration.”