RIO DE JANEIRO — The nerves causing Tatenda Tsumba’s stomach to churn eased as the BYU track star settled into the comfort of the starting blocks in Olympic Stadium.
The 24-year-old shot off the blocks, quickly forgetting he was living a childhood dream. His start in Tuesday’s qualification round of 200-meter races was everything he’d worked for when he traveled to Jamaica last December to train with world record holder and Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt.
His finish was uncharacteristically weak.
“I got out well,” said the junior, who represented his home country of Zimbabwe in Tuesday’s race. “It’s been almost a month since my last race. I didn’t have the fitness to complete the race like I usually do. My legs couldn’t carry me forward. But I had a great start, so I can take that from my race.”
Tsumba’s sixth-place finish time of 21.04 wasn’t fast enough to qualify for the 200-meter semifinals. The fastest time in his heat went to Alexander Hartmann, Australia, who crossed the finish line in 20.45 seconds. Bolt won his heat to advance, three races after Tsumba ran. It was improving his start that took the economics major from Provo to Jamaica last December, a training arrangement made by the Zimbabwe officials after he met the Jamaican sprinters at the 2015 World Championships. He said it was an opportunity he was grateful to have, even if it meant an unusual holiday.
“I spent Christmas in a hotel, just by myself,” he said. “Sad but good. … I was there for a month.”
He said they specifically trained to be quicker off the blocks.
“We’ve been working on the start,” he said of what he learned from Bolt and his Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake. “With this race, it shows my start is really good going into next year. I’ll be working on the last part of the race.”
Tsumba said he was nervous before his race.
“I was nervous at the start,” he said. “But once you get in the start, you kind of zone out.” And running against the world’s best, he said training with Bolt and Yohan Blake for a month cured him of being star struck.
“They’re good people,” he said. “That kind of helped me too. I’ve trained with the big guns before. So seeing them next to me, I’m like, oh, I know this guy. I’m not scared.”
He said he learned a lot, and plans to work even harder to return to the games in 2020.
“The Olympics is something you grow up watching,” he said. “So to be a part of it is overwhelming.”
Tsumba said he chose BYU because it was a Christian school, and he attended Christian schools in Zimbabwe. He said the team and the atmosphere at BYU have helped him adjust to a bit of culture shock.
“It was (important that the school was a Christian school) because the atmosphere there is protective,” he said. “It’s a good school to be at. The culture, I fit in more. People are more social to me, and they made it a lot easier for me.” Tsumba said American colleges became interested in him after he ran in the Penn Relays at age 19. He started out in Philadelphia, where he worked while waiting for his paperwork to allow him to compete for a college. He started his collegiate track career at a Division III school in Ohio, but then he said he didn’t feel like it was helping him develop his talent.
He emailed BYU coaches, and they did some research. He started classes at BYU in 2015, and he said being able to compete in the U.S. collegiate system has been a huge advantage to him in his development.
“At some meets, we get to meet some of the professional athletes,” he said. “It helps me a lot.”
He won the 200-meter race at the 2016 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Indoor Track Championships with a time of 21.38. He also owns the fifth best 200-meter time in BYU history at the Air Force Invitational, a race he won in 21.16.
But Tsumba said it isn’t just his speed that has improved at BYU, his educational and social experience has improved as well.
“It’s amazing,” he said of attending BYU. “The first few months (there was culture shock), but then you kind of blend in. The track team is a big family so we have some gatherings together, hang out together, and just having someone to share time with away from home … is a blessing.”
He said the fact that BYU was a religious and academic institution made his transition easier.
“Going into that setting, it just helps me, and everybody is so nice, knowing that I’m an outsider,” he said. “Everybody is helping me get out and settle in.”
He heads home in a few days to start classes at BYU, but he said not before relishing a few more Olympic moments.
“It’s been great,” he said of running for his country in the Olympic Games. “I’ve been around amazing athletes, so I’m hoping next time I come, I won’t be scared or anything. I’d like to do better than I did today.”