Ypsilanti native Tiffany Porter: 3 passports, a 2-Olympian home and 1 goal
Editor's note: A correction has been made in the story regarding Tiffany Porter's advanced degree from the University of Michigan. Porter recently received her Doctor of Pharmacy degree (PharmD) from UM, not a PhD in Pharmacology as the article previously stated.
It has been Tiffany (Ofili) Porter’s dream to run in the Olympics since she was a little girl growing up in Ypsilanti. That much has never changed.
The difference between Porter’s dream and those of the millions of other young girls who imagined themselves to be Jackie Joyner-Kersee is Porter’s has been rooted in reality.
AnnArbor.com file photo
When she told people she’d be an Olympian some day, there was no reason for someone to suggest otherwise.
While Porter’s dream of being an Olympian never changed after failing to make the United States Olympic team in 2008, the uniform she was wearing in the dream did.
Porter will wear red, white and blue at Friday’s opening ceremony in London. But it will be as a representative of the host country, Great Britain.
Porter’s mother, Lillian Ofili, was born in London, where she met and lived with her husband, Felix Ofili -- a native of Nigeria -- before moving to the United States. Porter was born and raised in Ypsilanti, but has been a citizen of both the United States and Great Britain her entire life (she also has a Nigerian passport). Porter decided to switch allegiances and compete for Great Britain in 2010.
She has succeeded greatly and ultimately qualified for the Olympic team in the 100-meter hurdles this summer, but it hasn’t been a smooth ride.
Somewhere along the road to London, Porter became the poster child for a jingoistic media attack on so-called 'Plastic Brits' by British tabloids. That is, athletes competing for Great Britain who weren’t born in the country.According to the Olympic charter, a competitor who is a national of two or more countries at the same time may represent either one of them at the Games. There are 61 British Olympians who were born outside of the country -- many of whom are on the track and field team with Porter -- but she became a primary target.
When Porter broke a 15-year-old British record in 100 hurdles, former record holder Angie Thorp told the Daily Mail she wasn’t sad the record was broken, but “distraught” by who broke it.
At a press conference before the World Indoor Championships, rather than asking about the competition, a British journalist asked Porter to recite “God Save the Queen.”
When Porter posted on Twitter that she missed home on Fourth of July, she again came under attack.
But she’s handled it all in stride.
“I am very much American. I am very much British. I am very much Nigerian. I am extremely proud to be all three,” Porter told the Guardian News. “I'm not apologizing for that. It's who I am. I embrace it. It's very important to be true to myself."
Though Porter never lashed out publicly, longtime Michigan track coach James Henry and Lillian Ofili said the attacks did affect them, but not too much.
“She didn’t like it, of course, nobody would like to be called such names,” Lillian Ofili said. “Right now she’s happy and she’s doing what she wants to do. It’s not as in-her-face anymore.”
Henry called the attacks nonsense, joking that he’s not even sure he could recite the "Star Spangled Banner."
“I can hum it whenever everyone else is humming it,” Henry said.
AnnArbor.com file photo
“All it is now is fuel to the fire,” Henry said. “She’s not whining. When something bad happens to her, she just makes it into something great.”
Offering a little more insight into Porter’s decision to compete for Great Britain, Henry said Porter (who was not available for this story) has always expressed pride in her British heritage. He also said she was discouraged by certain decisions made by USA Track and Field, such as lifting suspensions on competitors who had tested positive for banned substances earlier than the standard.
“That’s part of what upsets someone like Tiffany Ofili. Don’t give an advantage. Just line ‘em up with an even playing field and she’s there to race,” Henry said. “I’ve been proud of the fact that she’s said all the right things. Stayed cool, calm and collected.”
Though Porter didn’t begin competing for Great Britain until 2010, Henry said he could sense she was leaning that way after missing the final heat by less than one-hundredth of a second with a sub-Olympic qualifying time in 2008.
Porter’s father said it wasn’t a decision she came to lightly.
“It was very difficult for her,” Felix Ofili said. “When she finally made the decision, I said, ‘Are you sure?’ And she has been focused.”
Lillian Ofili never questioned her daughter’s decision.
“She’s a very competitive girl and she knows all about track and field,” she said. “When she says ‘Mom, I’m American, I’m proud of the United States, I just want to compete for Great Britain,' I don’t question her because she knows more about track and field than I do.”
Porter’s focus doesn’t just apply to the track. Just 24, she recently obtained her Doctor of Pharmacy degree (PharmD) from Michigan while continuing to train at an elite level. On a blog for the London Evening Standard she said she’s as proud of graduating “as anything I’ve done in athletics.”
But back to the track.
His time of 13.08 seconds was the fourth-fastest time in the world this year.
The couple met at Michigan, where Henry said Jeff Porter, two years Tiffany’s senior, would get under Tiffany’s skin with loud behavior. Tiffany said she hated Jeff’s antics, but Henry saw it a different way.
“He would be boisterous and obnoxious, yelling, being all sorts of loud at practice and she was annoyed,” Henry recalls with a laugh. “She would say ‘I hate that guy, he’s so loud and obnoxious,’ and I’d say, ‘Tiffany, you’re going to marry that guy.’ And that would make her even more angry.”
They eventually began dating and Henry’s joke looked like a premonition when the couple married last May. They live together in Canton when they're not traveling the globe training for competitions.
Henry said seeing them both make it to the Olympics is already a story made for Hollywood, but he’s still hoping for an even happier ending.
“I want them both to walk away with medals,” Henry said. “Now that you're there, dammit, go ahead and get a medal.
“If you’re in it, you might as well win it.”
Tiffany Porter will have more than gold medal favorites Sally Pearson of Australia and Dawn Harper of the United States to overcome when the women's 100 hurdles are run on Aug. 6 (preliminaries) and Aug. 7 (semifinals, final). According to a report by The Associated Press, a sore back left Porter in tears after finishing last in the semifinals of the same race at the London Grand Prix on July 17.
Liu Xiang of China, Dayron Robles of Cuba and American Aries Merritt are the favorites in the men's 110 hurdles, held Aug. 7-8.
Lillian Ofili says whatever the result, it is part of God’s plan. She also realizes her daughter is only interested in one of those plans.
“I know that Tiffany goes out there to win,” Lillian said, raising her soft voice with strong emphasis on the word that drives her daughter. “Tiffany told me, ‘Mom, when I’m there, I go to win.’”
Contact Pete Cunningham at email@example.com or by phone at 734-623-2561. Follow him on Twitter @petcunninhgam.