Something about the way the freshman ran caught the eye of Hopkins track and field coach Nick Lovas and made him pay close attention. It was the power in his stride, the lift in his hips, his graceful form … everything looked so different.
"I was like, holy cow, there is something about this kid," Lovas recalled this week. "It was effortless and fast."
Lovas pulled aside Joseph Fahnbulleh after a workout that year and told the 14-year-old that, if he committed himself to training, his future in the sport was limitless.
Fahnbulleh soon began calling his coach "Pops," and Lovas' hunch was proved correct. That fast, effortless stride has made Fahnbulleh the fastest man in college track and field.
The Hopkins graduate completed a historic double sweep for the University of Florida last week by winning the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Fahnbulleh, a sophomore, also anchored Florida's 4x100 relay team that placed second.
Fahnbulleh's individual excellence carried Florida to the team national championship, which is how he began a phone conversation this week — wanting to talk about his team's accomplishment.
"My main focus was being a team player," he said from Florida.
Running is a solitary pursuit, though, and Fahnbulleh is on quite a trajectory.
He won the 200 meters national title last season. Then he represented Liberia in the Tokyo Olympics last fall and placed fifth in the 200. He successfully defended his NCAA title in the 200 last Friday and added the 100 crown to claim the throne as king of sprinters.
Florida's program serves as the gold standard in college track and field. Fahnbulleh has set himself apart within that greatness by becoming the first Gator athlete to win two individual running events in the same NCAA Championships.
He didn't just win; he left a vapor trail.
He ran the 100 about 40 minutes after his relay race and posted a personal-best time of 10.00 seconds. Fahnbulleh fell behind at the start, then overtook the field with a scorching finishing kick.
He blew away the 200 field an hour later with a school-record time of 19:83, fourth-fastest in NCAA history. Heavily favored in that event, he put on a show for fans.
"He has another gear, and he runs everybody down," Lovas said. "A lot of runners rely on competitors to bring it out. He's learning how to flip that switch. He's doing it in almost all his races now."
Fahnbulleh allowed himself to celebrate after winning his final race of the day. He found Florida's Hall of Fame coach Mike Holloway, who coached Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics, and gave him a hug that lasted 30 seconds.
"I was crying in his arms," Fahnbulleh said.
Fahnbulleh remembers Holloway comparing him to a Ferrari when he recruited him in high school. Fahnbulleh was a state champion at Hopkins and the national track and field athlete of the year. He became a Ferrari despite living in a northern state that forced him to train indoors at the Hopkins Lindbergh Center during the winter months.
"Sprinters can come from all parts of the world," Fahnbulleh said.
As a ninth-grader at Hopkins, Fahnbulleh watched the Rio Olympics and told everyone that he would run in the Olympics someday. Teammates would often remind him of that claim during practices.
Fahnbulleh made good on that promise last fall. His parents emigrated from Liberia before he was born. Fahnbulleh carried the Liberian flag at the Opening Ceremony in Tokyo.
In the 200 final, he found himself surrounded by the best in the world. He was 19 years old and fearless. His mind-set that day: Top three or bust.
"If I'm intimidated by them," he said, "then that means they have already won. I'm not going to just roll over."
He finished outside the top three — fifth — but he set a Liberian national record with a time of 19.98.
Fahnbulleh plans to compete in the World Championships this summer, but that's as far as he will look into the future when discussing the next steps in his career. The encouragement his high school coach gave him as a freshman still holds true today. His potential in the sport appears limitless.