Northern Colorado Athletics led by Al-Khaliq, Mpigchai
Winning a Big Sky Championship may not happen to every team at the University of Northern Colorado, but that doesn’t take away from the talent of individual student-athletes. In fact, the track team includes two who could be NCAA All-Americans, world champions, or even Olympians.
UNC coach Wayne Angel oversees athletics, field and cross country. His team added graduate student triple jumper Qwazon Al-Khaliq and freshman distance runner Regina Mpigchai to their athletic roster this season.
Both athletes have impressed at the league level and are garnering attention on the national stage.
“You’re not used to having athletes like that very often,” Angel said. “Qwazon is a grad student and Regina is just a freshman. I think those two have a shot at making All-America this year if we can keep pushing. That’s the dream of a trainer.
Al-Khaliq set a new program record for the indoor triple jump earlier this year, breaking teammate Welre Olivier’s record from last season. He won the event at Stanford’s outdoor meet just a few weeks ago to claim the conference’s current highest rating. Second place goes to Olivier.
Mpigchai placed third in the 800-meter race at the Big Sky Indoor Championships, a huge feat in an area often dominated by northern Arizona. She currently holds the fourth-best time in the league since the start of the outdoor season.
Angel said he expected them to succeed. Al-Khaliq was already established at collegiate level, while Mpigchai won two Tanzanian U18 national titles before coming to Greeley.
However, neither athlete reached their cap. It’s exciting for their personal career and the program.
“(Their success) means a lot because it brings fame to the university and puts us on the map,” Angel said. “A while ago this university – in the 80s – was very good at athletics. We’re trying to bring it back to that level, so we’re excited about that.
Go out with a bang
One day during basketball practice, a young Al-Khaliq jumped off the free throw line and hit the hoop. His coach was impressed and suggested he be a jumper on the track team.
Then a sophomore in high school, Al-Khaliq decided to give it a try. He had always been an energetic kid – at least outside of the house – and he clearly had a natural talent.
“I jumped a few times, and that was history. There was no doubt about it,” Al-Khaliq said. “I dedicated myself to the sport right after that.”
Originally from Atlanta, Al-Khaliq spent part of his childhood playing sports. At one point, a football coach thought he could eventually make it to the college and pro level. He even participated in the swimming team.
But once he discovered the jumps, it was over. He likes the athletics, the technical aspects, and that it’s just fun. The graduate student typically spends a few hours a day watching videos of jumps — of his opponents and his own — to see where he can improve.
“When you think about jumps, it’s a mix of every event on the track,” Al-Khaliq said. “The triple jump specifically incorporates speed, power, coordination and balance.”
It may sound silly to some people, but he really likes the event.
In fact, it was something that drew him to the program. Al-Khaliq transferred to UNC from Kennesaw State, which is in metro Atlanta. Current jumps coach Ed Loyd, a former All-American, was at Kennesaw State during Al-Khaliq’s early seasons before taking a job at Tennessee Tech.
Loyd took over this season, after Leevan Sands took a job at Florida State, and reconnected with his former student-athlete.
Al-Khaliq said the coaching staff was “phenomenal” and called Loyd a father figure. He received personal and sporting support, while participating in high-level competitions. UNC may be a middle-of-the-road program, but it rivals the best, and that’s what Al-Khaliq was looking for.
As for his teammates, he said they provided a great environment. Even though he is one of the best jumpers, his passion, energy and desire to be better also fuel him.
Olivier enjoyed domestic success in his home country of South Africa and continues to be one of the best in the league. His father was also an elite jumper. Tyler Thimsen, Thierry N’Seboko and Maccee Reed may not be breaking records, but Al-Khaliq has a lot of respect for them. Their work ethic and dedication deserve it.
During the indoor season, the UNC triple jump team ranked #2 behind Purdue. He had been ranked No. 4 but skipped – no pun intended – Oklahoma and Houston after Al-Khaliq’s record number.
They want to build on that in the outdoor season and earn top finishes. Al-Khaliq would love to be in the top five, but top three would be even better. He hopes to qualify for the World Championship – he is only two feet from the goal – and prepare for a chance to go to Paris in 2024.
It can be done, says Al-Khaliq, with the coaching he receives at UNC.
“It’s great because I’ve been injured for most of my college career. This is the first time that I train every day. I am competing full time for the indoor season,” Al-Khaliq said. “It’s my first time in six years. I’m like, ‘Yo, I’m finally able to live up to my potential.’ It’s great to be able to go out in style.”
“A force to be reckoned with”
On the other side of the list, Mpigchai is making waves as a rookie in running events.
The freshman from Tanzania wasn’t sure she would adapt quickly. She didn’t even train outside for a few days after Greeley had her first measurable snow.
“I didn’t think I would do well like this, because it’s my first time (away) from my country,” Mpigchai said. “We have no snow. It is very hot in my country, but here it is very cold.
She’s used to running two laps and being drenched in sweat, not having to bundle up, and thought overcoming that would be a challenge. The first few weeks were tough, but Mpigchai acclimated well and has been a top competitor ever since.
“When a person comes from my country to come here to the United States, it’s really difficult the first month,” she said. “But you can find me (outside) now. I’m fine, I can stay outside.
Mpigchai started running in elementary school – or what Americans often call primary school – before securing a scholarship to Filbert Bayi High School.
Bayi, an esteemed runner from Tanzania, founded the school to provide top level education and athletic training to aspiring athletes. He set world records in the 1,500 meters in the 1970s, and he still holds the Commonwealth Games record for that event.
Mpigchai credits much of her success and standing at UNC to Bayi — whom she calls her role model — from winning the scholarship to how he instills the same passion for the race in students. She is also grateful for the support of the coaching staff and her teammates, who played a key role in her big departure.
Although she doesn’t have a world record yet, she is on her way to a wonderful career.
Mpigchai broke the school record for the mile when Gene Edmonds was invited to Purdue in January. A week later, she won the 300 meters at the Corky Classic at Texas Tech and set a school record. She placed first in the 800m at the Mark Colligan Invite, hosted by Nebraska, also in January.
In addition to the individual bronze at the Big Sky, Mpigchai won a second bronze at the indoor championships following the Bears’ performance in the 4×400 meter relay.
“Having only two months (to prepare), I was really happy,” Mpigchai said. “It was my first time here, then I got a medal.”
Mpigchai hopes for even better results as things progress and believes she will achieve those goals at Greeley.
It’s just a matter of time.
“I think by the time she’s a senior she should have been at the Olympics. I think she has a good chance of qualifying for the World Championships, depending on her progress,” Angel said. “She’s really coming up in training, so I think once she adapts, she’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”
on the horizon
UNC has about two months out of the track season and high hopes for the team.
Al-Khaliq and Mpigchai are likely to headline the remaining competitions, but there is still plenty of talent on the roster – from remaining triple jump squad members to sophomore Wendira Moss (hurdles) and senior Andrea Stark ( sprints) – who could win medals in outdoor competitions.
Angel knows Northern Arizona has been a dominant program in the Big Sky, but he thinks the Bears can struggle. This season, he wants to see two or three athletes advance to the first round of the NCAA championship in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and “pray for our chances” of advancing to the finals in Eugene, Oregon.
In future seasons, he thinks fans should expect the team to be even more successful.
“I think as a team we are young,” Angel said. “But with another recruiting class, we can do what we want to do.”