Zimbabwean triple jump champion Mavugara reflects on life at Mason

Namatirai Grace Mavugara is a national record holder in Zimbabwe in the triple jump, and is a member of the George Mason women's track and field squad (photo courtesy Namatirai Mavugara).
Namatirai Grace Mavugara is a national record holder in Zimbabwe in the triple jump, and is a member of the George Mason women's track and field squad (photo courtesy Namatirai Mavugara).

Fresh off the plane from Belvedere, Harare, Zimbabwe, in the United States for the first time, a young track and field athlete searches for a sign welcoming her at the airport. Failing to see one, possibilities rush through her mind: maybe they didn’t get the email that said I was coming early. Maybe they forgot. 

So she shrugs. Gets in a cab. Shows up at George Mason University as the newest arrival of the women’s track and field team.

Meet Namatirai Grace Mavugara, Zimbabwe’s national record holder in the women’s triple jump. When she first stepped out of the cab at Mason, she could not find anyone who knew where she belonged. Had they forgotten about her? Was she at the wrong school? She later asked her coach (who was, in fact, waiting at the airport with a sign) why he did not have a sign. He told her he was wearing a green Mason T-shirt.

“You know what? Before I came here, I had no idea which colors the school was. I didn’t even look at the website,” Mavugara said. “I assumed. I was like, oh yeah. We have a lot of assumptions. That was my first experience in America.”

Mavugara – or Nama, as her family back in Zimbabwe calls her – first arrived in the United States in the fall of 2008 at the age of 20. Now she is preparing for what will perhaps be her final college meet, the CAA Track and Field Championship hosted by Mason this Friday and Saturday. An impressive performance – a “miracle,” Mavugara calls it, in light of an injury this past year – could land her in the Olympics this summer. She’s no stranger to international competition, having competed in Beijing as an 18-year-old, but living abroad was a new experience.   

Mason track and field associate head coach Abigi Id-Deen, Mavugara’s current coach, was the one who went to pick her up at the airport.

“I didn’t know what she looked like,” Id-Deen said. “I actually saw her, but I didn’t know it was her […] I was looking for someone who looked lost […] that girl looked pretty confident in what she was doing.”

Mason Associate Athletic Director of Student Affairs Nena Rogers also remembers Mavugara arriving.

“By the time we turned around, she was literally standing in front of the field house,” Rogers said. “I was just amazed with Grace. I knew from that point on, I said, she’ll be ok.”

The transition wasn’t perfectly smooth for Mavugara, although she seems amused remembering her first semester at Mason. She double spaced a paper by putting double spaces between each word. She couldn’t understand who people were talking to they tried to pronounce her first name.

“I started using Grace,” Mavugara said. “Now I know: someone calls me Grace, it has something to do with America.” 

She says her two names go with different personalities, one for America and one for Zimbabwe. 

“Back at home it’s chilled and relaxed,” Mavugara said. “And then you come here, and it’s like Grace! You need to switch on that Grace mode.”

That difference is reflected in the training differences between Zimbabwe and the States, Mavugara said. Coming to the States meant a higher workout intensity and competition frequency, as well as more technical work. 

“I jumped, but I didn’t have a technique,” said Mavugara of her time before Mason.

Grace mode and all, Mavugara endeared herself to the athletic department and the other athletes with her ready smile and easygoing nature. Teammate Nao Ma, a fellow graduating senior and distance runner from Beijing, China, says Mavugara’s positivity and understanding means she is a good person to go to if you need help.

“She’s the most understanding one,” Ma said. “I feel like she can be friends with everyone on the team.”

George Mason University Athletics’ senior academic coordinator Cheryl Hunte agrees. She travels with the track and field team in the spring and says the team has missed Mavugara during times she was not able to travel this year due to an injury.

“Grace was always the one everyone wanted to room with,” Hunte said. 

Hunte, who describes her and Mavugara’s relationship as grandmother-granddaughter, fondly retells the story of Mavugara’s arrival by cab.

“That’s when you knew Grace wanted to be here,” Hunte said.

Her father, Emmanuel Mavugara, said he and his family recognized her talent when she was just a child and they are “very, very happy” about her success and her growth in confidence during her time at Mason. He looks forward to her athletic and academic future.

“She’s very keen to do sports, I think that’s her ambition and we support it,” Mr. Mavugara said.

“But me, as a father, I would like her to advance in her academic work. She’s intelligent also.”
Her athletic accolades alone are impressive. She is one of the all-time top five Mason indoor triple jumpers. She competed in the NCAA Track and Field Indoor Championships in 2010. She earned multiple all-CAA honors. Her 13.03-meter triple jump means she could cross the end zone of a football field, touching the ground twice, and land with four yards to spare. Her best long jump is 5.98 meters. That’s like jumping over a napping giraffe.

“She’s accomplished a lot in the Mason uniform,” Id-Deen said. “She’s talented – I think she doesn’t know how talented she is.”

Rogers was also an accomplished triple jumper, earning all-American honors at Mason and taking a place among Mason’s indoor top five alongside Mavugara. This enables her to relate to Mavugara from a fellow athlete’s perspective.

“We talk it through from experience to experience,” Rogers said.

For Mavugara’s final CAA Championship meet, Id-Deen wants her to go out and do her best.

“Then you can’t have any regrets,” Id-Deen said. “I would say that for her and any senior.”

And for the future, her coach says Mavugara can go far. 

“As long as she realizes the potential she has and devotes herself, I could see the sky as the limit for her,” Id-Deen said.