Black History Month: Maria Akraka
Her growing years were almost exclusively experienced in Sweden.
"I regard myself as Swedish since that is the culture I know from my upbringing," Akraka said. "Sweden in the 1970's was a country where there were few black people. My brother and sisters stood out and we were always being regarded as 'different.'"
When Akraka was 18, she went to Nigeria to visit her father, who was coaching the Nigerian track and field team. It was a life-changing experience in almost every way.
"It was like arriving on a new planet," Akraka said. "I came from a cold climate with people that are quite reserved, practical and non-religious to a place that was hot, humid, densely populated and with a mix of religions. During my eight months down there I think I might have seen no more than a handful of white people."
Skin color was just part of the transition.
"Everything was different down there: the food, the people, the culture, the way people talked to each other, the way they dressed, everything," Akraka said. "My stay there was difficult in the beginning just because it was so different, and I barely had been outside the borders of Sweden prior to my Nigeria trip. But I learned a lot down there. I grew up, and I think that it was the most important trip I have made in my life."
It was while in Nigeria that a new door to Akraka's future was opened. She had become interested in running as a teen, watching U.S. sprinter Valerie Brisco Hooks at the 1984 Olympic Games. She wanted to be a sprinter like Hooks. Running in Nigeria, she got a full taste of sprinting and realized the 100 meters were not in her future.
"My coach down there finally convinced me to try running the 800 meters after I'd been there for seven months," Akraka said. "I reluctantly did so, and beat their best junior 800-meter runner in my first race. In the second 800 race I ran 2:13, and in the third just three seconds from Nigeria's national record. That's when I realized that 'hey - I'm quite good at this.'"
Akraka stayed one more month before leaving Nigeria with a sense of purpose on the track that would lead her to Iowa State.
"I met a few athletes that had some application forms to ISU," Akraka said. "They gave me one and said: 'fill it out if you if you want to go to the U.S.' So I did. When I got home to Sweden I received a letter from Iowa State saying I was welcome. I couldn't believe it. I run 2:09 and I could get all the way to the US. It was fantastic."
Her sojourn to Iowa would be a new life lesson.
"I had never had to fill in forms about my ethnicity," Akraka said. "The breakdown of different kinds of people was totally new for me."
Her initial Iowa State experience exceeded her expectations.
"I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the whole experience of going to college," Akraka said. "It was great just being in an environment with Olympians like Danny Harris, Nawal El Moutawakel and Yobes Ondieki. It was inspiring. I met so many lovely people and a few of them are still my close friends that I regularly see even though we don't live in the same countries."
Akraka's talent was immediately on display. In her first track season, 1987, she earned All-America honors in the 4x800-meter relay with Deb Betz, Moutawakel and Dawn Lentsch. Outdoors, she made the NCAA final in the 800 meters, placing seventh.
"My coaches at ISU, Steve Lynn and Dick Lee, let me evolve as a runner at my own pace, and gave me the freedom of planning my training so that it also suited the track season in Europe for the summer," Akraka said.
Akraka made the 1988 NCAA outdoor 800-meter final again in 1988. That fall, Akraka earned All-America honors in cross country, quite a feat for a middle distance competitor. Her Iowa State best 800-meters indoors still ranks second on the all-time Cyclone list at 2:03.70. Outdoors, she ranks third with a 2:05.78 clocking. Akraka won a pair of Big Eight Conference titles. Her best memories however are about being a part of a Cyclone squad.
"I remember with warmth being part of the relays," Akraka said. "I loved running the 4 x 400, and I really enjoyed the team spirit that I experienced during those relays. As a student, I value mostly that I improved my English a lot during my stay at ISU, both in speech and in writing. As a teammate, I really enjoyed being part of a team. I can't say that I had experienced that team spirit before, so the memories of the trips all around the U.S. with the Cyclone track and field team, is something that I still cherish in my heart."
Akraka was rapidly turning into a world-class competitor at the end of her Iowa State tenure.
"ISU was the starting point for my professional career as an athlete," Akraka said. "When I arrived in the USA and ISU, my personal best in the 800 meters was 2.07. When I left ISU a couple of years later I had improved over six seconds.
Akraka went on to become a member of four Swedish national teams at the World Track and Field Championships. She competed for Sweden in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. The former Cyclone reached the finals of the 800 meters and the 1500-meters of the 1994 European Track and Field Championships.
Akraka clocked a 2:00.01 in Stockholm indoors in 1998. Her indoor 1500-meter best was 4:07.74 in 1992.
Today she is the mother of daughters, Mica and Moa with former Swedish triple jumper Tord Henriksson. Her vocational experience continues to evolve.
"I have my own company and have, over the years, worked a lot as a lecturer both by myself and with other former athletes," Akraka said. "I have also over the years worked a lot within media and television, and still do so to a certain extent.
Akraka now races on a different track.
"As far as fulfilling my competitive side, I have totally abandoned running as far as racing, but instead get much satisfaction from competing with my horses in harness racing."
Akraka's success has affirmed her life path. Not bad for this Cyclone, who has climbed in a multi-cultural career that would be the envy of any sprinter.