Sam Rubin

Last August, sprinter Ek Ayhan ’21 received some jarring news. Due to complications from strenuous summer training, Ayhan had suffered a sports hernia — a painful soft tissue injury that doctors feared would set Ayhan back indefinitely. After a podium finish in the 400-meter dash in just his rookie season, Ayhan saw the prospects of an even more impressive sophomore campaign in jeopardy.

But to his doctors’ amazement, including one who recommended surgery for Ayhan, the New Jersey native made a full recovery in time to compete during the indoor season this year. After five months of intense rehabilitation, Ayhan was back on the track for the Dartmouth-Yale-Columbia meet and became the Bulldogs’ top finisher in the 200-meter dash. Since then, Ayhan has emerged as one of Yale’s most versatile sprinters and currently boasts the Ivy League’s third-best time in the 400-meter dash and its sixth-best time in the 200 this season.

“I think the key for [Ayhan] in return from injury was his mental makeup,” Yale assistant coach George Evans said. “He went after his rehab like he would be training mid-season for a 400-meter dash.”

Resilience and hard work has always felt natural to the sophomore. In his high school years at Blair Academy in New Jersey, Ayhan was a two-sport athlete, competing at elite levels in both track and field and soccer. In order to balance rigorous academics while also competing well enough to play both sports collegiately, Ayhan relied on his stellar work ethic.

Since starting at Blair in 2013, Ayhan’s trajectory on the track has skyrocketed. After placing sixth in the 200-meter dash at the New Jersey state championship meet as a first year, Ayhan improved at a prolific rate his next three years. By his senior year, Ayhan set school records in the 400-meter and 200-meter dashes and was a four-time state champion in the 400. Ayhan caught the attention of several prestigious colleges while he was in high school.

“I took an unofficial visit to Yale the summer before my junior year,” Ayhan said. [Yale Director of Track and Field David Shoehalter] met me earlier in the morning with my mom and younger brother and gave us a personal 4–5 hour tour and paid a lot of good attention to us. He tried really hard to sell the school and did really well in doing that. I really appreciate that care he had in wanting me to be a part of the program.”

Despite his success on the soccer field, Ayhan eventually decided to focus solely on pursuing track and field at Yale. During his rookie campaign, Ayhan was a regular member of Yale’s top relay teams and one of its more consistent performers in the sprint events. Still, Ayhan struggled to break through the top pack of runners in some of his first meets as a first year. After placing 14th in the 400-meter dash at the indoor Ivy League Championships and taking 18th in the 200-meter dash at the ECAC Championships, Ayhan remained hungry to bridge the gap between him and the rest of the field.

Ayhan’s determination took him all the way to the finals of the 400-meter dash at the outdoor Ivy League Championships in 2018. He earned sixth place with a time of 48.30 seconds. After refusing to let his subsequent injury dash his chance at another strong season, Ayhan has since been on a tear. This year, Ayhan broke 11 seconds in the 100-meter dash, lowered his personal record in the 200-meter dash from 21.96 to 21.47 seconds and matched his collegiate best time in the 400-meter dash. Still, Ayhan’s teammates are far from surprised by his continued success.

“There are a lot of runners, especially sprinters, that have very big personalities, and Ekrem very much isn’t like that,” sprinter Juma Sei ’22 said. “He’s often likened on our team to a horse, because his attitude every day is ‘I’m here to get work done’… As a first-year coming in, it’s been great to have that example.”

Ayhan’s discipline and relentless attitude have also been critical virtues for his life off the track. The son of a nurse, Ayhan remembered “just wanting to do what she was doing,” and was drawn to the practice of medicine since childhood. Ayhan’s interests led him to pursue a pre-med track as an ecology and evolutionary biology major.

While balancing collegiate athletics and pre-med requirements at first seemed daunting, Ayhan found that track and field added a helpful structure to his life, which made the academic load more manageable. In fact, when Ayhan stepped  away from training with the team to recover from his hernia, he found that the extra time was much more a challenge than a relief.

“Track is a huge part of my day every day,” Ayhan said. “Having to go to classes and then after just go back to my room or do something else besides going directly to practice with my team was really hard for me.”

Ayhan has no intention of slowing his momentum in the future. Ayhan’s season-best in the 400-meter dash sits less than a second out of contention for first place in the Ivy League standings, and he is certainly eyeing the top spot.

In addition to securing an individual conference title, Ayhan is after a qualifying spot to the NCAA East Preliminary Round. He believes that if he can hit a time around 47.00 in his hallmark event, the spot will be his. According to his teammates, Ayhan’s commitment to every element of training poises him to accomplish these goals.

“What makes [Ayhan] stand out as an athlete is his commitment to doing the little things,” sprinter Vincent Vaughns ’20 said. “Whether it’s making sure his squats are deep, trying to sleep more or getting a few extra abs in, he is committed to giving himself the greatest opportunity to get better.”

Ayhan and the Bulldogs will divide and conquer this upcoming weekend, as some will remain in New Haven for the Mark Young Invitational, while others will travel to either the University of Virginia or Auburn University to compete. Each meet will take place on April 20.

Ellen Margaret Andrews | ellenmargaret.andrews@yale.edu