EUGENE, Ore. –The Oregon women’s 4×400-meter relay team will be chasing its third national crown in the past five years this week at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field.
If they reach Saturday’s final, as expected, they will sprint past an umpire who helped seal the school’s very first national title in that event – Grace Bakari, a veteran of 16 years as a meet official at Hayward Field, and one of Oregon’s all-time great sprinters.
At the 1980 AIAW Championships (a predecessor of the NCAA meet), Bakari and UCLA’s Oralee Fowler charged into the anchor leg, running neck-and-neck for the mile-relay title. “This girl was tough and I was tough,” Bakari said. “At 300 meters, I pulled back and let her pass. And then from 150 meters out, I started running hard toward the tape.”
In front of a raucous Hayward Field crowd, Bakari surged down the final straightaway and edged out Fowler for the win.
Or so it seemed.
Before the celebration could begin, Bakari and her teammates had to sweat out the results of a protest filed by UCLA coach Scott Chisam, who claimed Bakari impeded his athlete in the final meters. The games committee’s verdict came by a razor-thin margin: 4 votes to 3, in favor of the Ducks.
Perhaps as impressive as Bakari’s blistering final straightaway that day was her journey to get there. Born in Damongo, Ghana, Bakari came to the United States in March 1980, less than three months before her mile-relay triumph. Her athletic credentials had attracted the attention of Oregon women’s track coach Tom Heinonen, who recruited her by sending letters to the American embassy in Ghana—the only way to ensure timely delivery.
After navigating an immigration scare in Chicago (Heinonen had to explain Bakari’s scholarship arrangement to airport officials before they’d let her board the plane to Portland), Bakari arrived in Eugene just in time to enroll for spring-term classes. At her first track practice, Heinonen said he didn’t need any help finding her in the crowd.
“From around the corner came this skinny women in a red dress that would’ve been great in Ghana,where it was hotter than blazes,” he said. But in Eugene, it wasn’t hot at all. “It was March.”
Bakari overcame the culture shock to enjoy a standout track career at Oregon, breaking the school record in the 440-yard dash and scoring dual-meet points in every event from 100 yards to the half-mile. She also competed for Ghana at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and still holds a share of the country’s national record in the 4×400-meter relay.
Today, Bakari volunteers as a Hayward Field meet official and works at Costco, her day job since 1989. This decades-long presence in Eugene has made Bakari a familiar figure around town.
“People will ask, ‘Oh, do you work at Costco?’ or ‘Hey, do you still run?’” she said. “Yeah, people do recognize me.”
When Bakari returns to Hayward Field this week for the NCAA Championships, she’ll be patrolling the famed Bowerman Curve, the same section of track where she unleashed her dazzling kick nearly 35 years ago. She’ll also be standing by the track for the 4×400-meter relay—watching as a new generation of Oregon quarter-milers sprints past her shadow, attempting to follow in her footsteps.