Illini of the Decade: #15 Yvonne Mensah

It’s a long trip from Surrey, British Colombia, Canada, to Champaign. In fact, 1,790 miles stand between Yvonne Mensah’s hometown of Surrey and the University.

But that didn’t stop the former Illini sprinter, hurdler and jumper from finding a surrogate family and excelling in her new home during her time at Illinois.

“It was definitely a huge change, like being away from home,” Mensah said. “And I was there for five years, those five years flew by. A lot of fun, met a whole bunch of people, got to do things and go places that I probably would have never done otherwise.”

Among the things Mensah did in her Illini career included winning 15 Big Ten titles, earning three All-America honors, and being a part of two team conference champions.

Current Illinois women’s track and field head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey was an assistant coach with the Illini during Mensah’s career.

To her, Mensah was a “major factor” in the team’s success from the beginning, as she won the 2004 Big Ten Freshman of the Year after the indoor season.

“Yvonne was our team leader from freshman year. Her other teammates always looked up to her. If we were to pick a team captain, it probably would have been her,” Buford-Bailey said.

For Mensah, the key to success was a combination of an iPod loaded with gospel music and not thinking too much about the task ahead of her before running.

Mensah explained she took each event one at a time, not letting herself think about all she did — until the weekend was over.

In addition to praying before every race, Mensah also used music to set her mood.

“If I was really nervous, I’d listen to some calming music. If I was kind of like, you know, a little bit more quiet and needed to get pumped up and excited — especially before like finals and stuff like that — I’d listen to something more upbeat.”

Mensah won conference titles in the 60-meter hurdles and 4×400 relay in her freshman season, and her contributions continued the next year as she became an All-American in the 60-meter hurdles and won three total Big Ten titles.

While Mensah always displayed a hard work ethic on the track, another side of her could be seen off of it.

“You would see her other side, you know, when she was just on the weekends — being fun, being goofy, playing with Dora the Explorer stuff, playing with coach’s child,” senior sprinter Paris Streeter said. “We all have a little kid inside of us. So it was quite fun seeing a different side of her.”

For former teammate and current Illinois volunteer assistant coach Tiara Armstrong, Mensah was a friend and a mentor. Armstrong was a freshman during Mensah’s senior year, and the two still talk on the phone almost daily.

“She’s one of my closest friends,” Armstrong said. “She’s a very encouraging person, you know, even when she’s not doing well, she was still there to encourage the rest of the team. She wanted them to excel.”

During her time at Illinois, Mensah was a part of two conference championships. The first came in 2005, and she also closed out her collegiate career with her second conference championship at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships in 2007, when Illinois tied for first with Michigan.

The memory of that title is one of Mensah’s favorites when she looks back at her days in Champaign.

“It came down to the last event. And we ended up tying with Michigan, which like never happens in track and field — ever — because there’s like a bajillion points to be won throughout like all the events,” Mensah said. “And the fact that it was (my) last year and we tied — kind of went out that way — was awesome.”

That weekend, Mensah was named Field Athlete of the Championships, winning her third career Big Ten triple jump title to go along with victories in the 100 meters and 200 meters and anchoring the victorious 4×100 relay.

Mensah also anchored the second-place 4×400 relay and took third in the long jump to accumulate an impressive 40.25 points individually.

“The two years we did win (the Big Ten Championship), we couldn’t have done it without her,” Buford-Bailey said. “She was a very major factor to us as a team.”

Mensah concluded her career by becoming an All-American in 2007 by finishing 6th in the long jump at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.

Memories of Mensah go further than the track, though.

Illinois senior Alecia Beckford-Stewart, a native of Ontario, looked to Mensah for advice as a fellow Canadian when she arrived at Illinois when Mensah was a senior.

“I would talk to her about how she handles it because she’s technically further, further into Canada than I am from here,” Beckford-Stewart said. “And just like, do you use phone cards? Do you use Skype? How do you call home? Where do you book your flights to get home? All that kind of stuff.”

When Mensah chose to don the orange and blue, she was a sprinter and a hurdler. However, by the close of her collegiate career, she had dropped hurdling in favor of the triple jump.

She continued her track career after her athletic eligibility was up, and during a year spent training with the Illini, Mensah changed things yet again, as she took up her current event, the 400-meter hurdles, in 2008 with the encouragement of then-head coach Gary Winkler and Buford-Bailey.

“I was really scared. I didn’t really want to try it because it’s the 400 hurdles,” Mensah said.

But after deciding she missed hurdling, Mensah was determined to give the new event a try.

Buford-Bailey, who won a bronze medal in the 400 hurdles in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, saw similar abilities to her own in Mensah, as both women competed in similar events for the Fighting Illini.

“I hurdled, I sprinted, I ran relays, so this is something you could probably be good at,” Buford-Bailey told Mensah.

Now that Mensah has devoted her time to the 400 hurdles, her former coach sees plenty of potential.

“She ran 56 (seconds) her first year running the event, just learning the event,” Buford-Bailey said. “She’s going to have a lot of success in it.”

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Mensah since settling on the 400 hurdles, as she underwent knee surgery in December 2008.

The injury happened while Mensah was training with the Illini in 2008, forcing her to return to Canada to undergo surgery.

Even knee surgery can’t stop Mensah, though. Instead, she’s looking at the positive.

Because 2010 is a “down year” for track, Mensah hasn’t been forced to rush her rehab.

Her goal for the new year is to ease back into the routine and test out the knee. But her goals don’t end there.

“Ultimately, I would love to make the Canadian Commonwealth Games team, that’s a nice lot bigger competition, but it’s not huge,” Mensah said. “And then the following year, 2011, are World Track and Field Championships, so like that is my ultimate goal, would be to make that team.”

Behind everything is the thought of the 2012 Olympics. But for now, Mensah is just looking forward to returning to her sport.

Mensah credits many of her future possibilities with the time she spent at Illinois.

“I definitely learned a lot about myself and kind of had that guidance to push me in the direction that I’m in right now,” Mensah said.