Although Kwaku Ohene-Frempong was a terrific athlete in both track & field and soccer during his time at Yale from 1967 to 1971, he never placed his athletic and academic obligations on equal footing.
“I always tried to combine academic work, athletics, and social life as much as possible and in that order of priority. There was never a time when I made a decision that favored athletics over academic work. The reverse was more likely.”
His lifelong ambition was to become a doctor and he found the combination of mastering a demanding pre-med curriculum while competing in two sports challenging. As a student who had come to the United States by way of the African Scholarship Program of American Universities (ASPAU), Ohene-Frempong understood that the purpose was for the students to get an education in order to return to make a positive impact in their home countries. He knew that he was at Yale to honor his family and country by receiving the best education possible. Although when he left Ghana for Yale he was already a national schoolboy champion in the hurdles and long jump, at Yale he was a student first.
At one point, Ohene-Frempong did feel that the conflicts between his athletics and academics were too much. “In my sophomore year, there was a time when I had Biology, Chemistry and Physics labs in the afternoons at the same time when my teammates were at practice.” Frustrated with the fact that he had to neglect the track team, Ohene-Frempong made the decision to quit the team.
It was during the bus ride to the Indoor Heps Championships during his sophomore year that he informed his team captain, Mark Young, now the Director of Track & Field at Yale who has coached at his alma mater for the past 27 years, that he had decided that Indoor Heps would be his last meet. Since freshmen were ineligible for varsity competition, that was to be his first Heps. His career would be over just as soon as it had begun.
Luckily Young, and Coach Bob Giegengack were able to dissuade KOF, as they called him, from quitting. He went on to become one of the great athletes in Ivy League track & field history becoming a Heps champion in both the hurdles and the triple jump. Nearly 40 years later he is one of the top three performers in Yale history in three separate events — the triple jump, the 120-yard hurdles (equivalent to the 110-meter hurdles), and the 60-yard hurdles. He is also 11th on the long jump all-time list. In addition to his track & field accomplishments he was also a three-time letterwinner in soccer and a William Mallory Award winner for the Best Student-Athlete at Yale.
During his sophomore year, he was selected to the Ghanaian Olympic Team to compete in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. He relinquished his spot on the team because the October date would have required him to miss too much school. He did go on to represent Ghana in the 110-meter hurdle competition in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, but at the time he was passing up what could have been his sole Olympic opportunity.
“I never regretted my decision. My sacrifice was very small compared to the lifetime ban the IOC placed on Tommie Smith and John Carlos.” To protest the treatment of blacks in the United States, Carlos and Smith had coordinated a symbolic act, bowing their heads and raising black-gloved fists at the medal ceremony for the 200m race, in what became an iconic image of the 1968 Olympic Games.
At the time Ohene-Frempong could not have known that he would soon be in a similar situation to use his platform as an athlete to take a stand on the socio-political issues of the day. In 1970 the political climate at Yale, and many other college campuses, had become heated. At Yale, the frustration over the Vietnam War was compounded by tensions surrounding the trials of several Black Panther party activists being held in New Haven.
A protest strike was called at Yale. Ohene-Frempong and several other athletes made the difficult decision to boycott the 1970 Penn Relays in order to honor the strike. As athletes on campuses nationwide were called upon to forego athletic events to show support for ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a question arose as to whether the Heps, the annual Ivy League track championship meet would take place at all. It was a particularly thorny issue since the Heps competition included Army and Navy — where all student-athletes are members of the U.S. military. Since Yale was to host the meet that year, Ohene-Frempong felt it was his obligation to find a way for athletes to register their protest and still contest the meet.
As a compromise that would allow the meet to take place while respecting the deep concerns many of the athletes felt, Ohene-Frempong was one of several captains who drafted a joint statement to be read expressing their stand on the issues, followed by a period of silent reflection and prayer. Officials at the service academies objected to the sentiments expressed in the statement and the athletes were ordered not to compete. But the fractured meet took place as scheduled with Ohene-Frempong winning three Heps crowns.
In his professional career, Dr. Ohene-Frempong has continued to demonstrate that same vision and leadership ability. He is one of the world’s leading pediatric sickle cell anemia specialists. While caring for his young patients at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, he is also actively involved in research studies that will impact many thousands more worldwide. He also practices medicine on two different continents. He is the founder of the Sickle Cell Research and Treatment Center in Kumasi, Ghana.
His first clinic opened in December 1992 with 10 patients. Since then, thousands have been treated and hundreds of thousands of newborn babies have been screened for the disease. True to the mandate by which he first came to the United States to study, Dr. Ohene-Frempong is using the education he was given to help improve life for countless people in his home country. “I have had only one hometown,” he proudly asserts, “Kukurantumi, Ghana. Everywhere else was just a temporary stop.”
Although, Dr. Ohene-Frempong makes it a point to downplay his athletic accomplishments to his young patients, for many of whom participation in sports is forbidden because of their medical conditions, he can not escape that part of his past. The NCAA gave Dr. Ohene-Frempong the Silver Anniversary Award in 1996, an award that recognizes six distinguished former student-athletes on their 25th anniversary as college graduates.
And in November 2001, as part of Yale’s 300th anniversary commemorations, Dr. Ohene-Frempong was selected as one of nine former athletes for the William H. W. Bush Lifetime of Leadership Award — a well-deserved tribute for a man who has positively impacted so many lives.
As former teammate Coach Young summarizes, “KOF is a person of great humanity and dignity… really an inspiring individual.”
This story was written by Meredith Rainey Valmon in 2007 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.