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From impoverished Zimbabwe, Mvumvure goes fast in USA

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From impoverished Zimbabwe, Mvumvure goes fast in USA YTRACK-articleLarge

Gabriel Mvumvure of L.S.U. anchoring the victorious men's 4x100 relay team at the Penn Relays. He also lead the 4x200 team to victory and won the open 100.

From Southern Africa to American Tracks

New York Times
Published: May 1, 2011

The big winner at the Penn Relays on Saturday was Gabriel Mvumvure of Louisiana State, who anchored the Tigers to victories in the 4x100- and 4x200-meter relays and won the open 100 with speed that was even more elusive than the correct pronunciation of his name on the public address system. (It’s voom-VURE-ay.)

His ascendance this spring has paralleled that of Ngonidzashe Makusha of Florida State, a long-jump champion who ran a collegiate 100 for the first time a week ago and finished in 9.97 seconds, the third-fastest time in the world this year.

As remarkable as the sprinters’ speed is their unlikely provenance.

They are former high school classmates from Zimbabwe, a poor southern African country that usually makes headlines for the brutal policies of its autocratic president, Robert Mugabe. It is a place where life expectancy is 37 years for men and 34 for women, and some people barter for health care by paying with peanuts.

One of Zimbabwe’s successes, though, has been a development program called World Wide Scholarships, which says it has placed about 150 athletes in American universities in sports like track, tennis, soccer and field hockey. The program, aimed at disadvantaged youth, was founded by a former Penn State sprinter and football player, Munya Maraire.

“Every place in the world has its own issues and problems,” said Maraire, 31, who went to Alaska from Zimbabwe as a high school senior to join his sister, who was serving in the United States Air Force. “But sports is its own entity. As long as you have coaches doing what they’re supposed to do, you can make things happen.”

Zimbabwe has only three all-weather running tracks in a country of more than 12 million people, according to Maraire (pronounced Muh-RIRE-ay). As a young sprinter in the town of Kwekwe, southwest of Harare, the capital, Mvumvure improvised by placing weights inside a car tire and tying the homemade sled to his waist.

“There was a street near our house, and I used to just run up and down the street,” said the 5-foot-7 Mvumvure, now a senior at L.S.U., who won the open 100 in 10.33 seconds at the Penn Relays.

He later moved to Harare, attended Churchill High School for a time with Makusha and became the African junior champion in the 100 (10.45) and the 200 (20.91). In 2007, Mvumvure came with a group of runners to the Penn Relays, and Maraire began seeking a scholarship for him. L.S.U. had been more interested in Makusha, who chose Florida State, but Mvumvure proved to be a worthy consolation prize.

At the time, all he knew about L.S.U., a longtime sprint power, came from an old media guide. A countryman, Fabian Muyaba, had won the Southeastern Conference title in the 100 for the Tigers in 1993. Still, Mvumvure was afraid that he would be overwhelmed at a university with 28,000 undergraduates.

“I thought it was too big for me.” he said.

Still, sight unseen, Mvumvure flew to Baton Rouge, La., from Harare and entered L.S.U. during the 2007-8 year. As a freshman, he ran the third leg on the Tigers’ 4x100 relay that won the 2008 N.C.A.A. outdoor title.

“The only way for a sprinter to get out of Zimbabwe is probably to come to the U.S. and get into college and get a good education and develop their skills,” Mvumvure, 23, said. “Here, they’ve got good facilities and good coaches.”

Mostly, Zimbabwe has gained the international sporting spotlight with its female athletes. Its women’s field hockey team won gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. And its renowned swimmer, Kirsty Coventry, who attended Auburn, won a combined seven medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Games.

Beijing also proved to be an international coming-out party for Zimbabwe’s sprinters and jumpers. Brian Dzingai finished sixth at 200 meters but advanced to fourth after two other runners were disqualified. Makusha finished tied for fourth in the long jump, missing a bronze medal by one centimeter — less than half an inch.

“He won’t miss it this time,” Maraire said of Makusha, looking ahead to the 2011 world championships in August in South Korea and the 2012 London Olympics. “Now he’s ready.”

There have been some disruptions in the United States-Zimbabwe sprinting pipeline. A paperwork fiasco kept Mvumvure from securing a visa to compete in Beijing. A year later, Muyaba, a former SEC champion, was sentenced in Dallas to 10 years in federal prison for tax fraud.

Lately, the headlines have been more heartening. First came the startling news a week ago that Makusha, a two-time N.C.A.A. outdoor long-jump champion with a personal best of 27 feet 2 ¾ inches, had run 100 meters in 9.97 at the Atlantic Coast Conference championships, summoning the athleticism if not yet the virtuosity of Carl Lewis.

“He hasn’t run the 100 in a long time,” Mvumvure said of his countryman. “When I saw 9.97, I was shocked.”

Having improved his mechanics and avoided overtraining, Mvumvure has also run personal bests this spring of 10.23 in the 100 and 20.67 in the 200. He could face off with Makusha at the N.C.A.A. championships in June before they join to compete for Zimbabwe at the world championships in August.

“We found out about” competing in the United States, “but we never got that far,” Maraire said. “These guys are the next generation.”

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