The 25th honoree on the Sun Prairie High School Wall of Success is the first person of color given the honor.
The school has honored a distinguished alumnus every year since 1996. This year’s honoree is Ajamu Olaniyan, a three-sport athlete who went on to national championships in college and founded his own athletic performance business in Milwaukee.
A 1988 graduate, Olaniyan still holds the Sun Prairie triple jump record. He went on to UW-LaCrosse, where he won nine NCAA Division III championships in track and field and set school and conference triple-jump records. He also earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. Now 51, he teaches middle school science in Milwaukee and coaches athletes through his own company, Top Flight Sports Performance Engineering, while also working toward a doctoral degree in health and human performance at Concordia University.
Addressing an assembly of Sun Prairie High School students Friday, he recalled his father serving in segregated units of the Navy and his mother being the first Black teacher in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
“We’ve been pioneers all our lives,” he said. “I guess that’s just our calling.”
Olaniyan, who was known as Dean Cash in high school and college, said he was one of just two students of color in Sun Prairie in the late 1980s. He said a few teachers helped him navigate that.
“Teachers, I can’t overstate this, you have so much influence over the kids and their development, it’s a responsibility,” he said. “There were teachers who were not helpful and there are some amazing teachers. Every day I was called names, there were people that did not want me here, but they understood that I needed support and they were there for me. And I’m grateful for that.”
Despite enduring discrimination as a student, Olaniyan praised the Sun Prairie community.
“I just want you to understand that in the greatest country in the world, Sun Prairie is one of the greatest communities,” he told the assembled students, teachers and community members.
He urged the students to make the most of the opportunities Sun Prairie High School offers.
“Education is the great equalizer,” he said. “In life whatever goals that you have … whatever dreams you have, they are valid, whatever it is, go get it. But use your education here to catapult you towards those goals.
“Be you. The world will adjust,” he said. “And be the reason people around you succeed and are inspired.”
He acknowledged that the past couple years have been difficult on students, with both a pandemic and racial reckoning affecting their education, and challenged the students to move the country forward.
“The little things matter, your words matter, but you also have a responsibility to do better,” he said. “And to be honest, my mom and dad worked too hard for us to go back. We need to move forward. What makes America great is the diversity and we need to lean into that even more.”
In an interview after the ceremony, Olaniyan said he enjoyed seeing a much more diverse crowd of students than he would have seen 33 years ago. About 30 percent of the students are students of color, according to state data.
“It’s wonderful and it’s a blessing,” he said. “It’s nice to see diversity, it’s nice to see the community involvement of the student body.”
Monona Grove school board member Andrew McKinney was one of many friends, colleagues and family members on hand. McKinney, a 1987 graduate of Madison East High School, competed against Olaniyan in both triple jump and basketball, and formed a lasting friendship.
“I’m just so proud of him. When I saw him getting this, I took the day off, said I was going to be here for him,” McKinney said. “His worth ethic is proven to where he’s at now. His own business, he works with athletes, he works with students, he gives back to the community. Now it’s in Milwaukee, but he’s still a part of the Sun Prairie community and that’s what makes him so special. I’m very happy for him and hopefully I can grow up and be like him.”
Current Sun Prairie sprinter and long jumper Alexander Maggit commutes to Milwaukee to train with Olaniyan.
“I like to call him my second father because he’s just there for me all the time,” Maggit said. “Very inspirational, he’s helped me through rough patches of my life and given me a better outlook on things and not look so negatively at everything and everyone.”
Maggit said seeing Olaniyan honored by Sun Prairie High School is an inspiration.
“It makes me believe in myself even more,” Maggit said. “He endured it, he went through it all and now he is up here living his best life and just showing me that I can do it.”