2024 Penn Relays presented by Toyota

Cheickna Traore Is Up Next. The Former D3 Star Has Elite NCAA Potential

Cheickna Traore Is Up Next. The Former D3 Star Has Elite NCAA Potential

When Cheickna Traore lines up at the Penn Relays next week, he could take center stage and reaffirm what most already know around State College.

Apr 22, 2024 by Cory Mull
Cheickna Traore Is Up Next. The Former D3 Star Has Elite NCAA Potential

Every condition added up to a less-than-optimal result. 

It was pouring, which meant that the track was wet. It was evening, which meant that most of the crowd had left. And then there was Cheickna Traore in lane nine, on the very outside of the oval at Franklin Field during the night session on day two of the Penn Relays.

Everyone runs the same distance, which is the rebuttal you'll hear from any coach who wants to remind you that track is track, but lane nine is lane nine. 

You don't want to be in lane nine to start. 

But then the gun went off. Traore blew out of the blocks and lost everybody, clocking a 20.50 first leg split during heat two of the Championship of America sprint medley relay last year, helping Ramapo College to a finishing time of 3:38.60, which would go down as the eighth-fastest performance across the NCAA Division III that season. 

"Holy smokes," the commentator said. "Ramapo very quick on the outside."

Brandon Rizzo knew what he was witnessing then. Even before the Penn Relays began, Rizzo, the now 27-year-old Penn State assistant coach and sprints specialist, had connected with Traore through a shared history. He had then signed him in the transfer portal for his graduate season.

Rizzo knew then that the senior -- who was of Ivory Coast descent and was just four years younger than him -- had won a NCAA Division III indoor title in 20.72, which was a new D3 record. He also knew that Traore was capable of becoming a special talent at the Division I level. 

Related Links:

"I went up to (Penn State head) coach (John) Gondek afterward and said, 'That's the guy we signed,'" Rizzo said. 

Before leaving Ramapo, Traore set two NCAA Division III records in the 200m, ran the third-fastest 100m in division history and the 21st-best 60m. In his first indoor season at Penn State, he won Big Ten titles in the 60m, 200m and 4x400 and followed with an NCAA second-place finish in the 200m at nationals with an indoor career best of 20.30.

On Friday, Traore will return to the Penn Relays presented by Toyota with the Nittany Lions and is scheduled to line up in the Championship of America 4x100, 4x200 and 4x400, sprint medley relay and distance medley relay -- which is an absolute murderer's row of events, though the lineups will likely be adjusted and finalized on race day.

"Do I think he's a sleeper?" said Rizzo when asked whether Traore is flying under the radar. "Absolutely not."

What Rizzo did realize when he signed Traore, however -- much like Ramapo had four years earlier -- was that there was much more to tap into. Few could have guessed when Traore came out of high school that he would become a world class sprinter.

From Good To Great

When Traore first came out of Snyder High School in Jersey City, New Jersey, he owned personal best times of 11.39 in the 100m, 23.22 in the 200m, 50.22 in the 400m and 57.48 in the 400m hurdles. 

Which is to say, there was no mistaking him for a Division I recruit.

So maybe Justina Cassavell got lucky. Or maybe the Ramapo College head coach saw something in the young athlete. 

Whichever way you cut it, Cheickna -- prounounced SHECK-NA -- found himself on the New Jersey campus in 2019 and became a college athlete in 2020. Few people know this fun fact, however: Traore was originally slated to be an 800m runner. 

If he could just get the proper training, Cassavell thought, Traore's 50-second 400m speed could translate well to the middle-distances. She made quick decision, and that next move proved to be prophetic. 

Believing Traore needed to work on his speed, she sent him to volunteer assistant coach Ackeme Brown. He was only 27 years old when he first began working with Traore. A native of Jamaica, he had arrived in the United States at the age of 13, found track and field as a high schooler and then excelled at it, much like Traore. His college career continued at Ramapo, too, and he set a 60m school record during his time on campus -- before it would later get broken by his own student. 

"To be honest," Brown said, "when we first came together, I was in the early stage of my coaching career. That was my second or third year of coaching. Me and Check grew as the years passed, both as athlete and coach. I would call him my test dummy. When I wrote up a new workout, I would test it with him first." 

Traore broke 22 seconds in the 200m by February of his freshman season, but it would take two more years before the gears really clicked. That came when Traore ran his first 60 meter race as a junior. 

"The kid had speed," said Brown, who ran the 60m in college. "So I told myself, ' I need to see if I'm a 60 meter coach. This is the 60 meter guy' I never had a guy who was really that fast." 

Traore proceeded to prove him right, qualifying for the NCAA Division III Championships at the 60m. He would go on to finish fourth in the 200m. The following outdoor season, he cleared 21 seconds for the first time, broke 47 seconds for 400m and finished as a NCAA Division III runner-up at the 200m and 400m. 

By then, Cassavell said, Traore was considering a jump to the Division I level. He got close to signing with Pittsburgh, then opted to stay.

"Maybe he wasn't ready," she said. "I'm not sure. But it worked out well." 

With one more year with Brown, Traore honed in on his sprint technique. He broke school records in the 60m, 200m, 300m, 400m and the 500m indoors, then lowered his marks in the 100m and 200m outdoors. 

He broke NCAA Division 3 records indoors and outdoors in the 200m. 

Four years in, Brown began to realize something. 

"Coaching a superstar humbles you," Brown said. "You know what it takes now, the patience you need. You know it can change for the better. The gains he made were massive. I've learned just to be patient and fine tune the little things. 

By then, Rizzo was scouring the transfer portal. 

A New Jersey native from Roxbury, he had run at Montclair State, a Division III outlet, and was a senior when Traore was a freshman at Ramapo. 

Rizzo was well aware of the sprinter. In his senior season in 2020, he won a conference championship in the 500m in 1:06.09. Traore, who ran 1:04 that same year, ran the 400m and 4x400 instead.

"That's the only reason I won," Rizzo, a 2-time conference champion at 500m said. "I'm thinking to myself, 'Thanks for not racing this.'" 

When Rizzo began his coaching career and fates aligned in 2023, he made sure to connect with Traore over shared history.


Unlock this video, live events, and more with a subscription!

Sign Up

Already a subscriber? Log In

Building On Progress

When Traore arrived in State College, Rizzo believed it was a perfect fit.

There were obvious reasons why. 

The biggest, Rizzo said, was that he employed a similar coaching philosophy to Brown.

 "I can hit three different energy systems with Cheick," Rizzo said. 

Like Brown before him, Rizzo was all about hitting core work. He focuses on the trifecta: tempo work, speed endurance and speed work. The tempo work, Rizzo said, is in some ways the most important facet for Traore because it has given him that extra oomph to finish races. 

"That's given him the strength to hold his top line speed matched with speed endurance," he said.

But whereas Traore was a big fish in a small pond in Division III, things have changed at Penn State. The goal posts are much higher in the Big Ten and at the championship level. 

While the core objective is to reach an NCAA outdoor final in 2024, there is also the auxiliary goal of hitting the Olympic 'A' standard of 20.16 in the 200m. 

Traore ran a career best of 20.23 (+1.1) seconds on March 30 at the Pepsi Florida Relays. That mark ranks at No. 3 in the NCAA. When all is said and done, he is likely to get an Olympic bid from the Ivory Coast, as he sits at No. 31 on the world rankings with 1,235 points. 

But Rizzo says there's still work to do. Traore wants to earn the auto. 

"To be honest, he has way more in him," Rizzo said. "You would be shocked. His opener was OK. But the things we're doing in practice, I think he can go sub-20. I think he's that good." 

First up is the Penn Relays on Friday.

FloTrack Is The Streaming Home For Many Track And Field Meets Each Year

Don’t miss all the track and field season action streaming on FloTrack. Check out the FloTrack schedule for more events.

FloTrack Archived Footage

Video footage from each event will be archived and stored in a video library for FloTrack subscribers to watch for the duration of their subscriptions.

Join The Track & Field Conversation On Social