Return of the Mak

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More than two years ago, Ngoni Makusha emerged as one of the world’s most exciting talents with a spectacular double at the NCAA Championships. After suffering a serious injury in 2012, we chat to the Zimbabwean who’s ready to fire in 2014.

Ngoni Makusha is a special athlete. That much is indisputable.

In 2011, the man from Zimbabwe evoked memories of Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens to do the NCAA 100m and long jump double. He did so with national records of 9.89 for the 100m and 8.40m for the long jump, and then took LJ bronze at the Daegu 2011 World Championships.

Ostensibly on the cusp of a special career, injury cruelly struck in May 2012. The Florida-based Makusha ruptured an Achilles during a routine training session, leaving his Olympic dreams in tatters.

Now on the long journey back to fitness, the 26-year-old is aiming to make his mark at the Sopot 2014 World Indoor Championships in March.

Makusha has some story to tell. His journey from Zimbabwe – a nation struck by economic and political troubles for decades – to world-class international athlete, is a minor miracle.

Raised in the Seke district, just south of the capital Harare, life was tough. His father worked for a recycling plant. His mother sold goods across the border in nearby South Africa.  

Makusha describes his upbringing as “poor” before adding, “it was challenging to have a balanced meal. It is not like today [in the USA] when I have to pick and choose what food I eat because I might put on weight.

“In Zimbabwe growing up, it was never in my vocabulary to pick and choose what food I ate. Sometimes we just ate corn and vegetable. It was a typical African life.”

Like so many, he found hope in sport. An enthusiastic footballer and volleyball player, he was drawn to athletics. Always enthused by running fast, he relished athletics days at school, which would be “full of happy kids in a jovial mood.”

He was a prolific football striker but “it never felt as natural to me as running.”

His parents sacrificed a lot. They worked hard to rustle up a bus fare so that Makusha could make it to training. Such is his natural ability, he qualified for the Beijing 2006 World Junior Championships.

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Makusha was one of the 13 Zimbabweans who competed at the Bejing 2008 Olympic Games.

Despite access to only the most rudimentary coaching and facilities, and competing in a borrowed pair of spikes, he performed well. Makusha made the semi-finals of the 100m and finished 12th in the long jump final.

“Growing up in Zimbabwe, it was a real culture shock,” he says. “I saw kids from America, England and Australia and they had everything. It was a real eye-opener, but it got me really motivated. I thought: I can be like these kids, but how do I get there?”

The following year, his prayers were answered when countryman and Florida State University (FSU) coach Ken Harnden, the 1998 Commonwealth 400m hurdles bronze medallist, was visiting his parents in Zimbabwe. It was on this trip that he proposed Makusha should move to compete and study at FSU.

He flew out to live and train in the US in the fall of 2007, aged 20. It proved something of a challenge.

“I messed up a lot of times and people made fun of me,” he says. “I remember one time buying cheese. It came in a little paper packet and I didn’t know how to open it, so I decided to cut it with a knife. Yet all I needed to do was peel it away like a page in a book.

“People were looking at me with the knife, wondering what I was trying to do. It was moments like that which made me realise I’m a rookie. I needed to lie low and work my way up.”

On the track he soaked up all the information he could. Based in Tallahassee, he had a weights programme for the first time. He piled on 15-20 pounds in his freshman year, and qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the long jump, less than a year after setting out on his American adventure. He finished fourth, just 0.01 shy of bronze.

“I couldn’t believe I was competing against world-class jumpers like Irving Saladino and Godfrey Mokoena [who took gold and silver respectively at the Beijing Games],” he says. “Just six months earlier I was this kid from Africa following their fortunes on the track. Now here I was competing against them. It was like, is this really happening?”

The following year he landed the NCAA long jump title but injuries took their toll as his body struggled to adjust with his new size and training demands.

Back to his best in 2011, he made a seismic impact at the NCAA Championships in Des Moines to secure that very rare NCAA sprint-jump double. Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens and DeHart Hubbard (1924 Olympic long jump champion) complete the list of men to have done it.

He describes it as “the best moment in my athletics career” and yet he then proved himself on the global stage, winning long jump bronze at the Daegu 2011 World Championships.

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Makusha celebrates winning world LJ bronze with four-time gold medallist Dwight Phillips.

With the Olympics on the horizon, he approached 2012 with huge optimism, only to sustain a horrific injury.

“It was very devastating, but I’m a spiritual guy and I believe everything happens for a reason,” he says. “I just had to accept it, get the problem fixed and move on.”

It took eight or nine months before he could lift weights again. After a limited base of winter training he returned to competition in April 2013, after an 11-month hiatus.

He leapt to a wind-assisted best of 8.20m in Hengelo [his legal best in 2013 was 8.04m] and describes his comeback year as “very good,” despite missing out on the Moscow 2013 World Championships.

“Last season I was just getting my body used to working up the muscles I hadn’t used in a while,” says Makusha, who is coached by Harnden for the sprints and Dennis Nobles for the long jump.

“Training has been great and although there is a lot to do, I’m in a good place.”

He plans to maintain a duel focus on the long jump and the 100m in 2014, with the former event his priority at the world indoors in Poland. His sprint campaign will begin outdoors, and his belief is unshaken by the past couple of seasons.

“I want to go to the 2014 World Indoor Championships, go well there and be on the podium,” he says. “Next year I also really want to also get back to sprinting consistently, and bring my times down to run like a world-class sprinter.”

Makusha possesses such a rare talent. We’re not the only ones hoping he can fully recover to take our sport by storm.