From “sledding” in his native Zimbabwe to winning multiple championships at last week’s Penn Relays, Gabriel Mvumvure has come far. The senior LSU sprinter won the 100 meters (10.33) in the finals – the second Tiger to win the Penn Relays 100-meter dash championship in meet history – and anchored top-10 all-time Penn Relay finishes in the 4×100-meter relay (for a title) and the 4×200-meter relay.
Smashing results have dotted his outdoor season virtually from the start. He set personal records in both the 100-meter dash (10.23) and 200-meter dash (20.67) – happening on the first time he entered those events this season.
“I was really surprised with my times,” said Mvumvure (voom-VURE-ay), who was named this week’s SEC Male Runner of the Week for his Penn Relays performance. “When I ran that [time], all I could think about was, ‘to God be the glory.’ Then at the meet in Miami I ran a personal best in the 200, I just couldn’t believe it. “
A tremendous start to a season he hoped would be redemption from a sub-par 2010 season. He wanted to start fast, but this was beyond his expectations.
“I’ve never opened a season with PRs before,” said Mvumvure. “I feel really good. I took time off after the nationals last season. I didn’t really have a good season last year. I just was determined to refocus. I told myself I was never going to suck again.”
Far from it. Mvumvure, a 2-time All-American, 2-time All-SEC and NCAA champion, currently ranks No. 11 in the NCAA in the 200 meters and No. 17 in the NCAA in the 100 meters with his performance for the 2011 outdoor season.
Has anchored LSU’s 4×100-meter relay all season long, with the team’s seasonal best of 38.77 coming at the Penn Relays, the second-best time this season in the NCAA. And with the win at the Penn Relays and Texas Relays, the sweep marked the first time LSU’s 4×200-meter relay had accomplished that feat since 1998.
Mvumvure’s track career had an unconventional beginning. Like most of the kids in his village, the 5-foot-7 Mvumvure played soccer. His speed on the pitch made him stand out. Routinely he was challenged to foot races that would end with predictable results. He won them all.
Making the best of his talent was made all the more difficult coming Zimbabwe, a country in southern Africa, burdened by wrenching poverty and ruled by Robert Mugabe, who – according to a Parade Magazine’s rankings – is the world’s worst dictator.
Mvumvure began training for track in earnest. To help him build endurance and speed, he attached what he called a sled around his waist. His makeshift sled was nothing more than cord attached to an old auto tire filled with rocks and bags of sand. Mvumvure would increase the weight – up to 45 pounds — of the sled as he gained strength running with it 100 meters, 200 meters and 250 meters.
It all paid off as he earned a spot in the country’s development program called World Wide Scholarships.
This program for disadvantaged youths has placed about 150 athletes in American universities in sports. He earned a spot on the team that would compete in the Penn Relays, an experience he likened to being like, “a little kid going to Hollywood. There were so many people there who I looked up to.”
And as badly as he wanted to have a great showing, circumstances compromised his effort. He was jet lagged competing hours after arriving on a 25-hour trip. He scored a moral victory with a 10.8 in the 100 meters and finished seventh in an eight-man race.
“I was just happy I didn’t finish last,” Mvumvure said.
But where he did finish didn’t turn anybody’s head. In fact, LSU was actually looking to sign one of his high school teammates, Ngonidzashe Makusha of Florida State, a long jumper. Makusha, however, was already committed to Florida State. Mvumvure turned out to be a glorious Plan B.
“I didn’t know anything about LSU except Fabian Muyaba (also a Zimbabwean) went there (and won the 1993 Southeastern Conference 100 meters title). I am glad I came.
“I just want to keep doing my best. This is my last year, the last time I’ll have the LSU purple across my chest after this year.”