Tatenda Tsumba carried little more than an email list of colleges when he left his home country of Zimbabwe to come to the U.S. to run track.
When he wasn’t cleaning churches for money or trying to find food, he was at the library, using the computers to talk with the coaches of the schools he wanted to attend.
Now only three years later, he’s broken BYU school records, trained with Usain Bolt and competed at the International Association of Athletic Federation’s Track and Field World Championships.
But Tsumba’s running career, as illustrious as it is young, didn’t even begin by his own choice.
Tsumba grew up in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, and attended high school at a boarding school there. One day, a teacher asked a simple question: if any of the boys wanted to run for the school.
“I hadn’t ever even run at that point. I was a guy known for nothing,” Tsumba said, laughing. “But I ended up coming fourth in that race, and from there I made the school relay team, and it took off from there.”
Tsumba’s running career was his focus from then on. He made the national track team for Zimbabwe at 19 years old. At that time, he was invited to run for Penn Relays, one of the most important track and field competitions in the world.
The Penn Relays turned him to networking.
“When I got there, I had 56 schools that wanted me to come,” he said. “It was pretty intense, and I got stuck a number of times, but it worked out in the end.”
Tsumba’s flight first landed in Philadelphia, where he worked odd jobs while waiting for his paperwork to be sorted out. He used library computers in his spare time to send highlight tapes and recorded times to coaches, but eventually he made it onto a college roster.
Tsumba first ran for a NCAA Division III school in Ohio, but that school didn’t end up being the best choice for him.
“I didn’t really fit the program there,” Tsumba said. “I felt like I could have been doing better with myself. I felt like I was sitting down on my talent and not developing like I wanted to.”
Tsumba then turned to BYU. The school was on his original list when he came to the United States. He reached out again when he was looking to transfer schools.
BYU track coaches Stephani Perkins and Ed Eyestone said when they got Tsumba’s email, they initially wanted to bring him to BYU to compete in the long jump.
Eyestone said Tsumba’s email showed he was aware of BYU’s good track reputation and tradition.
“He sent out an email, and we looked him up,” Perkins said. “We found a clip of him on YouTube, and even though he didn’t really have any official times, I saw him on the runway and saw his very impressive long jump and I called him and started talking to him.”
Tsumba began attending BYU in 2015 and started competing for the school during the indoor track season last winter, running mainly in sprint events. Tsumba ran the 100m and the 200m and competed in the long jump during the outdoor season.
Tsumba won the 200m at 2016’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Indoor Track Championships with a time of 21.38. Earlier this season, he ran the fifth-best 200m time in BYU indoor history (21.16) at the Air Force Invitational. He also won the long jump at the Air Force Invitational during the 2015 outdoor season with a jump of 7.25 meters.
Last April, Tsumba ran the 200m dash with a time of 20.46 seconds, a time fast enough to qualify him for the 2015 World Championships in Athletics held in Beijing.
Running elbow-to-elbow with some of the biggest names in athletics didn’t knock Tsumba’s focus off. Tsumba said he was there to enjoy the experience, even though he competed with world-class athletes such as Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin.
“That was the most amazing moment for me,” Tsumba said. “I’m not a person that gets culture-shock, so I was very calm. A lot of the first timers there wanted to take pictures with the big stars, but for me, I was calm and invested in the moment.”
But his experience with the pros didn’t end there.
“A few months after meeting Usain, I went to train with him in Jamaica for three weeks,” Tsumba said. “That was just work. When I was there, I realized you could never beat the Jamaicans because all they do is work.”
Tsumba did the same workouts the pros did: every day he started running at 6 a.m. for an hour and a half, went on to lifting workouts at 10 a.m. for another hour, and then would do another running practice at 3 p.m. for about three hours.
Tsumba said all the work he puts in will pay off in the future. He has already accomplished many of his goals by representing Zimbabwe and competing in the World Championships before his sophomore year of college. But looking forward, Tsumba says there is only one goal.
“The big one this year is the Olympics. That is the ultimate goal,” he said.
But for now, Tsumba is focusing on his college season. His career at BYU has already proven him to be a fierce competitor. Earlier this month, Tsumba ran the indoor 200m in 21.27, marking his second BYU indoor top-10 performance this year alone.
But Stephani Perkins, his event coach, said there is so much more to him than just being an athlete.
“He’s very mature,” Perkins said. “He’s been through so much just getting to and being in the U.S. He’s a survivor, he’s a go-getter. I know that even if I’m not there, he’s going to get done what I tell him to. He’s a captain of our team because of that.”
Tsumba’s training partner, decathlete Chase Dalton, also said Tsumba’s character sets him apart.
“Once I asked him what his family’s nickname was for him, and he said it was ‘Bampa,'” Dalton said. “He said it meant ‘good harvest,’ and that’s what he is. As an athlete and as a person, he is definitely a good harvest. He has the capability to change a lot of people’s lives.”
With a star-studded resume that includes world-class track training, world championship experience and school record smashing, Tsumba has all the right in the world to brag.
Yet Tsumba has done it all with humility.
“We all have obstacles in our lives,” Tsumba said. “During those obstacles when you feel like there’s nothing left for you, I found that God had a better vision for my life. I could never have imagined it, but now I’m here and I’m able to do the things I’m doing.”