It was 1997. Nabie Fofanah, aka the "Speed Doctor," had just moved to New York and joined his high school’s track & field team as a 17-year-old with no experience, and he was the slowest one there. Even freshmen were faster than him. Living in the Bronx, he would hear about it day after day. The teasing never stopped.
After a few months, he had had enough. He picked a fight with the next teammate who made fun of him, hoping to prove he wasn’t afraid to stand up for himself. After the altercation was broken up, he turned to the group of onlookers and yelled something that would stick with him forever.
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“You guys are going to be watching me in the Olympics,” Fofanah said. “Watch.”
It was a heat-of-the-moment response. Fofanah didn’t actually mean it. One of the slowest kids on a high school track team making the Olympics? No way. Impossible.
But then he started to think about it.
Born in Sierra Leone but a native of Guinea, Fofanah had already witnessed the requisite willpower to overcome hardship firsthand. His father, Mohammad, had moved to the United States in 1985 and brought Nabie’s family over in 1990. His family struggled for years, barely affording food, clothing and shoes.
At 11 years old, Fofanah was sent to boarding school in France for three years, and then moved to Montreal to live with his uncle for another three. Living and traveling alone forced him to grow up. His parents had instilled a relentless work ethic in him and his two younger sisters, Fatmata and Marie, and Fofanah fell in love with working hard to overcome the challenges he faced.
“What we learned with the struggle — literally not being able to eat on some days, not being able to afford shoes, and things like that — that really hardens you so much that when you go to a country where there’s opportunities everywhere, it makes it a lot easier for you to just focus and go after it,” Fofanah says.
He had been through worse, so what was the big deal? What if he trained incessantly? What if he dedicated the next few years — even the next decade — to achieving that goal? Would making the Olympics be attainable then?
Fofanah decided to go for it, regardless of how long the dream took him.
He began by watching the 1996 Summer Olympics on a loop. He would break down film, deciphering why certain runners and sprinters were faster than others, and then read and research the science and mechanical breakdown behind better athletic performance — aspects of preparation which would be very familiar to a modern NBA player. He became a lot faster, and people began to notice.
Fofanah attended Lehman College from 2001 until 2004, becoming a three-time NCAA Division III All-American and setting the school’s 100-meter record with a 10.45. But it wasn’t enough. He could go faster. And a Canadian track & field coach named Lyndon George helped take him to the next level.
George had taken an interest in Fofanah after seeing such record speeds from a D-III sprinter, and decided to help train him and guide him toward an Olympic berth. Fofanah trained four-to-five hours per day, five days a week. Sprinting consumed his life. And he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Seven years and thousands of hours of training later — “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Fofanah says — he eventually reached his goal. Fofanah represented Guinea at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens at 24 years old (he competed in the 100- and 200-meter races), and then again in 2008 at the Olympic Games in Beijing (he competed in the 200-meter race), even bearing the flag the second time around.
At this point, Fofanah was at the top of his field. He had proved his doubters wrong. He had the last laugh not once, but twice, and had done it all in just 11 years. Yet he felt unfulfilled. He wanted more. He wanted to help people. He had so many ideas and techniques to share about sprinting and training, but he wasn’t sure how to disperse his knowledge.
Fofanah began personal training at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, training everyone from youth lacrosse players to New York businessmen. In 2011, two football prospects — Shaun Draughn and Chevon Walker — who were training for the 2011 NFL combine came to the gym and asked him for advice on how to improve their speed. Shortly after, Fofanah was leading them through full-fledged workouts. He could relate to their competitive drive and the intensity of their workouts, and the challenge of training professional athletes appealed to him.
He had a new goal: Move to Los Angeles and train professional athletes in the offseason hub of the world.
“I’m the type of person that I’ll set a goal, and a lot of times it looks impossible at the time — and it takes maybe five years, maybe even 10 years — but I’ll have that one goal and I‘ll focus on it until I get there,” Fofanah says. “A lot of times I don’t know how I’m going to get there. But the way I think of it is, it doesn’t matter how you’re going to get there.
“As long as you have that goal and you’re determined, you will eventually figure it out. If you’re patient and you’re going to work hard, you’ll meet the right people and the right situations and you’ll get there.”
Sooner than he expected, Fofanah would find his perfect client — this time, on the basketball court.
By 2013, about five years after he started, Fofanah had saved up enough money and was ready to move. He figured that L.A. was the most well-connected place in the world, and that if he could meet the right person, he would create an in and branch out from there. So he made the jump, moving onto his cousin’s couch in Studio City.
The first few months were disappointing. Though Fofanah hustled and amassed 10 clients in his first six weeks, the move was a net-negative. He was in debt and didn’t have the clientele to get out of it any time soon. He thought about just packing his bags and heading back to New York, where he could have the comfort of his old position in a heartbeat. But Fofanah refused to give up. That’s not how he’s wired. He knew the first six months, even the first year, would be a struggle, anyway. But after the adjustment period, he figured he would be fine.
Once again, Fofanah bet on himself.
His hustling paid off. By his fourth month in Los Angeles, he was introduced to an agent — not an athlete who was a client of a firm, but an agent — who was looking to get into better shape. Fofanah trained him for four months, and the agent was so impressed that he decided to recommend him to one of his clients: eight-time NBA All-Star and Los Angeles Clippers superstar Chris Paul.
Fofanah thought it would take him two to three years to develop a brand and reputation worthy of a professional athlete. Instead, he achieved his goal in eight months, and that athlete was one of the best basketball players in the world.
Upon meeting Paul in the summer of 2014, Fofanah knew he was special. Not just because of his athletic achievement, but because of his mindset. Paul had a competitive drive and mental toughness that Fofanah had only seen in a few people ever. It made training Paul a treat, not a job.
“The most important thing of all that [Chris] has, that is one of the top three I’ve ever seen, is his mental toughness,” Fofanah says. “The guy is a mental freak. There are guys who are going to be physically better than you in a lot of sports, but your mental toughness is going to overtake them. People think it’s just the physical, but when you get around someone like that that’s that mentally tough, an average mental person or a weak mental person, their game immediately goes down and they don’t even know why.
“It’s … that mental toughness of that dude is really like destroying you right now. You have to be able to sustain that when you’re around someone like that. So his mental toughness is the best part of it all. That’s why he’s able to will himself through so many different things — the injuries and all that stuff. His improvement over his career or his life even is because of that.”
A two-time Olympian himself, there wasn’t much Paul needed help with. He was already excelling at the sport’s highest level, and no one would ever look at his physique and question his work ethic. But one thing bothered him: He had never played a full 82-game season. Every year it seemed a random injury would nag at Paul, forcing him to sit out five games here, 10 games there. He needed to reach another level physically to prevent injury. So Fofanah assessed Paul’s body, and concluded that he needed to work on his flexibility and muscle balance.
“His flexibility, physically, is one thing that we worked on a lot,” Fofanah says. “His flexibility, his balance, and just balancing the strength of the muscles on both sides. That was the main thing. And then also, adding a lot of conditioning that we did on the track with a lot of the repeat runs on the track was really helpful too.
“Because he plays so many minutes, if he doesn’t have that tip-top cardiovascular shape — being able to have his muscles consume energy at a high rate and go and break down energy quick enough to continue — if you don’t have that, he’s going to hit the wall in the fourth quarter.”
The two trained all offseason — three months in all. Three-to-four hours a day, three-to-four days a week. Paul brought along Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton, who was close with Paul and was about to start his rookie season, for a few weeks, too. Fofanah and Paul continued training during the regular season, with Fofanah visiting him once every week or two.
Not coincidentally, Paul played his first 82-game season in the 2014-15 campaign. And guess who else did? Elfrid Payton.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Paul unfortunately got injured in Game 7 of the Clippers’ first-round series victory over the San Antonio Spurs, and had to miss two games in the next series against the Houston Rockets, which the Clippers lost in seven games after blowing a 3-1 lead.
Was it the wear and tear of a full season? Almost certainly not. Even after the 82-game slate, last season totaled only the fourth-most minutes Paul had played in a regular season in his career (2,857 minutes) — almost 150 minutes fewer than his career high (3,006). It would be a stretch, then, to suggest Paul’s injury was caused by the regular season, particularly with how thoroughly Paul prepared on a daily basis.
“This past year, he was amazing at that,” Fofanah says, describing Paul’s stamina. “He was able to play all the way through. There wasn’t too many other things, you know? A lot of times it’s the fundamental thing, the most basic thing that’s missing and that’s causing other issues. So if those are there, a lot of these players have enough skill and they’re good to go.”
And Paul, for his part, credits Fofanah’s training for his healthiest regular season ever.
“Nabie has been amazing,” Paul said. “I’ve been working with him for two offseasons now. He pays a lot of attention to detail.
“I love Nabie. I can feel the way my body has transformed since working with him.”
Word of mouth from Paul’s longevity and improved balance has spread. As a result, Fofanah added two other NBA clients this past offseason: San Antonio Spurs point guard Patty Mills and NBA free agent Phil Pressey, who is currently playing in the D-League. Paul and Payton trained with Fofanah for the same amount of time as they had the year before — three months for Paul, and a few weeks for Payton — while Mills (6 weeks) and Pressey (2 weeks) trained with him for varying lengths.
Fofanah didn’t anticipate becoming something of a point guard whisperer, as basketball obviously isn’t his forte. But he believes his core values of simplicity and efficiency help him stand out as a personal trainer. He says he only needs three weeks with an athlete for them to see a considerable difference in their performance. In a league where one can’t go five minutes without hearing the word "efficiency," it’s a fitting approach.
“I’m all about efficiency,” Fofanah says. “If it’s going to take us only 50 minutes to do it, I’m not going 51 minutes. There’s no point. I hated that. We’d practice for like three hours — for what? We could do it in two hours and we’re out of there. Take less pounding and we get exactly to the point.”
Of course, there is the flipside. Offseason training can’t prepare a player for everything. This season, Paul has already missed five games with groin and rib injuries, respectively. The Clippers point guard insists he’s been nothing but happy with Fofanah, however, and plans to keep training with him for the foreseeable future. Sometimes, flukes just happen. And when injuries do come up, it’s even more important that Paul has assistance in getting back to 100 percent.
“I don’t know if it’s one thing,” Paul says, “but Nabie knows my body.”
For Fofanah, it’s not about the money — it seems to be more about the reputation and the cache that training professional athletes holds, and what that can allow him to do in the future. He actually prefers training children and teenagers, which obviously is less profitable than training top athletes with multimillion dollar salaries.
But Fofanah hopes to expand his brand, the Speed Doctor, as aptly titled, and build a company with like-minded trainers who can preach his principles across the country at various training centers he plans on opening for reasonable prices (a rough estimate is around $14 per session). He also hopes to one day go back to Guinea, and provide children with the opportunity he never had until he came to America.
“I want to be able to help as many kids as possible in sports in this country — learn to run correctly, become faster the right way,” Fofanah says.
Like with his previous goals, such as making the Olympics or training top-level athletes, Fofanah doesn’t believe in the possibility of failure. Whether it’s a few weeks, a few months or a few years, he knows he’s going to scrap and hustle and find a way to achieve the next goal, the next step in his journey.
“Honestly, the way I think of it, it’s only a matter of time,” Fofanah says. “I don’t think there are any hurdles, really. I think it’s just the time and the work. If I do the work over a span of a year, two years, three years, I think my goal will happen.”
Jovan Buha covers the NBA for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jovanbuha. For more on the Speed Doctor, check him out on Instagram and YouTube.
Fofanah, left, quickly became a trusted part of Chris Paul’s preparation.