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Colleges

Taking a chance has a big payoff

FSU's Brian Dzingai left troubled Zimbabwe to run with the best. The result: the Olympics.

By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published May 28, 2004

Florida State sprinter Brian Dzingai didn't intend to sound arrogant.

But in the days leading up to his 200-meter race at the Seminole Invitational on April 10, he couldn't mask his confidence.

"I kept telling people, "Just watch me,' " he said. "I knew I was in shape. I just felt it. I knew I was going to run a really good time."

He couldn't have imagined how good.

His time of 20.36 seconds not only was the best for a Seminole in nearly a quarter of a century, it makes him the one to beat in this weekend's NCAA East Region meet in Gainesville. He also could run in the 4x100-meter relay and the 100-meter dash for FSU, although the latter is less likely.

More impressive, Dzingai, a native of Zimbabwe, has earned a trip to Athens for the Olympics. His time easily bested the qualifying standard (20.59) and set a Zimbabwean record.

"That is huge for the program," FSU track coach Bob Braman said. "You can recruit athletes saying our guy is in the Olympic Games."

"It's just a great honor to represent my country," said Dzingai, a senior. "That's the reason why I moved to Florida State. I felt like coming here was the best opportunity to take it to the next level. It's paying off. I feel I can compete with the best."

Not that long ago, few could have imagined that.

* * *

Dzingai (pronounced ZIN-guy), as do other runners in Zimbabwe, lacked what most future Olympians consider the barest of necessities:

His country, roughly the size of Montana with a population (about 12.6-million) akin to Pennsylvania, has only a couple of rubber tracks. He ran mostly on grass. And he was in the second of his six years of high school before he enjoyed the luxury of spikes.

"To us, that was normal," he said.

But you take such inconveniences in stride when far more serious conditions engulf your homeland. About 70 percent of the Zimbabwean population live in poverty. An estimated one-third of the nation has HIV or AIDS. The average life expectancy is 39.

Unlike so many folks in that country, Dzingai's parents have good jobs. His father is a businessman, and his mother is a teacher. They could afford to send him to a private school, greatly enhancing his opportunities.

"I was blessed," said Dzingai, 23. "I never experienced what a whole lot of people go through. . . . I talk to my parents every other week, and they tell me what's going on. They usually don't want to talk about it. It's depressing. It seems like things are getting worse and worse."

That includes politically charged flareups in race relations among blacks (98 percent of the population) and whites (about 1 percent). Even a world away, you might think that would be an issue for Dzingai.

He is black. His coach and fellow Zimbabwean, FSU assistant Ken Harnden, is white.

But they see things differently.

"Both Brian and I went to schools that were pretty good but yet very mixed," said Harnden, 31, an All-America hurdler at North Carolina and a two-time Olympian (1996, 2000) for Zimbabwe. "Both of us grew up going to boarding schools, so not only did we go to schools with people of another race, we lived with them. In my opinion, racism is learned. We haven't learned it and weren't taught it."

When Harnden went home last summer to visit his parents, he asked Dzingai to take care of his golden retriever, Dakota.

"I trust him like a brother," Harnden said.

"Race has never been an issue with us," Dzingai said. "I couldn't ask for a better coach. Just as much as Ken is my coach, I see him as a friend, too."

* * *

Dzingai came to America in the fall of 2000 on an academic scholarship to Truman State in Missouri. He impressed the track coach and eventually received athletic funds.

He twice earned Division II All-America honors and qualified for the national meet as a freshman and sophomore. But he felt the need to be pushed by the highest level of collegiate competition and decided to transfer to FSU for the 2002-03 school year.

His breakout 200 time in April stands as the second fastest among collegians this year, 0.01 of a second behind the time of Arkansas freshman Wallace Spearmon.

"Each day at the track, I'm just trying to work hard to get better," said Dzingai, who will earn a degree in accounting in the fall and a finance degree next spring. "I know there's a lot of kids back home who could probably run as fast or faster than me, but they haven't had the chance to come here and do it. ... I'm grateful, and I'm seizing the opportunity."

[Last modified May 28, 2004, 01:00:27]


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