When Kudakwashe Murasiranwa settles into the starting blocks to prepare for a sprint, he focuses on the race at hand and clears his mind of everything except the 60 metres in front of him.
Until recently, that was not an easy task for the 21-year-old, given the hardships he has endured from a young age, primarily the separation from both parents for 10 years.
It is a journey that has taken him from dangerous living conditions in his native African country of Zimbabwe, to Cape Town, to Canada and, eventually, the University of Guelph where he is finally starting to realize his hopes and dreams.
“I’m kind of settled, you know what I mean,” Murasiranwa said this week in an interview at the university’s fieldhouse. “After all the running and craziness that I’ve gone through this is home.”
Known to most simply as Kuda, Murasiranwa is in his first year at Guelph, hoping to earn a degree in criminal justice and public policy. “I want to be a lawyer one day,” he said.
He is also a budding sprinter for the Gryphons’ track and field team, which has become one of the top programs in U Sports the past couple of years. Last season, it won both men’s and women’s team titles.
The university, in southwestern Ontario about a 75-minute drive from Toronto, now has the country’s top-rated athletics’ team.
The Gryphons put that No. 1 rating to the test Friday with the start of the two-day Ontario University Athletics indoor track and field championships at Toronto’s York University. The top performers will qualify for the U Sports national championships in Winnipeg at the University of Manitoba from March 7 to 9.
Guelph has produced a number of Canadian Olympic track athletics over the years, including Anthony Romaniw in the 800 metres, Geneviève Lalonde in the 3,000-metre steeplechase and Reid Coolsaet in the marathon.
Murasiranwa is in the 60-metre event at York and is one of the favourites. His time of 6.88 seconds is the second fastest among OUA sprinters this season and tied for the fifth fastest in U Sports. His main competition is likely to come from Alexander Lau, the University of Toronto sprinter who has clocked 6.83 seconds this year, second-best on the national scale.
“He’s a very gifted young man and I think we’re catching him on the upswing right now,” Jason Kerr, the associate head track and field coach at the U of G, said about Murasiranwa. “He’s a guy you want to watch out for.”
Murasiranwa’s life has been filled with strife for himself and his family. It started in Harare during the early 2000s when the country was being ripped apart by political and economic chaos.
With thousands fleeing the country in search of a better life, Armstrong Murasiranwa, Kudakwashe’s father, decided to do the same. In 2001 he left for the United States, vowing to send for his family as soon as he had saved enough money, leaving behind his pregnant wife, Emillia, and Kuda, who was 4.
Two years later, Emillia joined her husband in the United States, leaving Kuda and his now 2-year-old brother, Darlington, in the care of a grandmother.
The couple bounced around Louisiana, Pennsylvania, California and North Carolina trying to find work and save enough money to bring their two children over from Africa, but the job prospects were not great. Armstrong was trained as a boilermaker.
For Kudakwashe, the highlight back then was sitting around the telephone at his Harare home every Saturday afternoon waiting for his parents’ weekly call from the United States. “It was a big deal, it was something that made our day,” he said.
As the days turned into months and into years since the family was split apart, the political climate in Zimbabwe continued to worsen, and in 2008, the parents decided to relocate their children to Cape Town in South Africa. Armstrong had a couple of older children from a previous relationship living there who were willing to take them in.
Arrangements were made and a driver was paid to take the children across the Zimbabwe border into neighbouring South Africa.
Kudakwashe, 11 at the time, remembers cowering in the back seat of the vehicle with an expired passport after armed guards stopped them at the border crossing. He said the guards either seemed not to notice or didn’t care about the invalid documentation. Nor did they spot his younger brother, who was stowed away beneath the back seat. The vehicle was eventually waived through.
Life in Cape Town was restored to a semblance of order with Kudakwashe enrolling in school where he started to play soccer, rugby and cricket and run a bit of track.
Meanwhile, his parents tired of their struggles in the United States and decided to move to Canada. They settled in Edmonton, where they were granted refugee status. Armstrong has since become a Canadian citizen.
In 2013, the couple flew to Cape Town for a joyous reunion that started at the airport where Armstrong finally got to hold 12-year-old Darlington for the first time and renew his relationship with his older boy. “All everybody did was cry,” Kudakwashe said.
The following year, Kudakwashe and his brother were finally allowed to be with their parents full-time, moving to Edmonton where the athletic prowess of both boys was soon drawing attention from high school and postsecondary coaches.
Kudakwashe started playing football at high school and running track. He posted some decent times in the sprints, good enough to land him in the national rankings for his age group. Darlington, meanwhile, excelled at soccer and was eventually invited by the Vancouver Whitecaps to participate in their residency program in Vancouver.
Around the same time, the sprinting talents of the older Murasiranwa boy caught the interest of Southwestern Oregon Community College, a junior college in Coos Bay, Ore. He moved there for two years but yearned to return to Canada. He signed a letter of intent to attend the U of G this school year.
Kudakwashe believes all the trials he went through growing up has helped steel his temperament and will help him develop into a better sprinter.
“It’s made me a stronger person, that’s how it affected me,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t really understand what was going on but at the same time I was always asking myself, why is this happening?
“It just made me the person who I am.”
As far as his coach is concerned, Kerr said any athletic challenges Kudakwashe will face in the future will pale in comparison with what he has already endured.
“I think he’s been a guy that in all the experiences he’s had in life, he’s always found a way to persevere and he does not complain,” Kerr said. “I just think whatever issues we can present him in this realm, he’s dealt with much bigger ones.”