By Steve Holt, Opinion Editor
Adeh Mwamba has had to make tough decisions throughout her entire life.
With whom to live when her father died.
Whether or not to run, despite the jeers of her friends.
Whether she should leave a newborn baby in her native Zambia to run in America.
Which college to attend.
Fortunately, the junior cross country runner has almost always chosen wisely, and that shows in the success she has attained and values she holds.
Mwamba has finished as the first ACU runner at every meet this season, including a first-place finish and two additional top-5 finishes at recognized national meets. Last spring she set a new school track and field record in the 5,000-meter run. She went on to become the first woman to win four events at the Lone Star Conference Track and Field Championships, establishing her place on a storied Wildcat team.
“I think she’s probably one of the best female distance runners we’ve had,” said ACU head coach Jon Murray. “She’s got it all. She’s got great speed and great endurance.”
But her individual success began long before her accolades in an ACU uniform. Her childhood cross country and track and field rZsumZ reads like a passport: World Cross Country Championships in Belgium and Spain at 11 and 13 years old, respectively; second place at the All-Africa Games in Zimbabwe at 15; first place in a half-marathon in Swaziland at 17; and second at the Midnight Race in Angola at 18. Her best international finish was a sixth place finish in the 800-meter run at the World Track and Field Championships in Seville in 1999.
She was 19.
“I came to see that running is my talent,” Mwamba said. “I had a group of friends that tried to make me stop running. They’d say, ‘Why do you want to keep running? You are a woman. You won’t have kids if you continue running.’ But I didn’t pay attention to what they were saying.”
‘The hardest thing’
Off the running course or track, childhood wasn’t easy for the dark, rail-thin Mwamba. She was born September 3, 1976, in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia-a 10.8 million-person country so poor that the average family earns the equivalent of only $330 yearly. While the southeast African country is peaceful, it is consistently ranked close to last among the countries of the world in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment and adjusted real income.
But Mwamba’s hardest times took place underneath her own roof. When she was a very young child, Mwamba’s father divorced her mother to be with another woman. Just two months into her father’s new relationship, the woman he’d started living with poisoned him to death.
“It was a sudden death-maybe it was his time to go,” Mwamba soberly recalls. “It was hard for me.”
Her mother had moved away, and Mwamba was left with no one to take care of her. Her grandmother soon took her in, educating her from the first grade through seventh grade.
“She did everything for me,” Mwamba said.
In 1990, Mwamba’s coach adopted the 14 year old, treating her “like one of his daughters.” It was under his supervision and expertise that Mwamba began to compete internationally, kicking off a career that made her one of Zambia’s premier female distance runners.
But as on a cross country course, life has its ditches, barriers and challenges. Mwamba’s next challenge would be one she wasn’t expecting. She was competing and training vigorously in late 1999 and early 2000 when she began feeling her body change, be it ever so slightly. She soon found out that she was in her sixth month of pregnancy.
“I couldn’t tell anything. I was like, ‘What’s going on?'” said Mwamba, who showed no outward appearance of her condition until late in the pregnancy.
But on June 21, 2000, Mwamba gave birth to a girl, Harriet. Six months later, she began to train again.
In 2001 Mwamba was offered a scholarship to attend South Plains College in Levelland, a two-year college.
Mwamba was torn.
“When I received the scholarship, I thought, ‘This is the time I have been waiting for; I should go,'” she said. “But I looked at my baby and asked, ‘Should I leave my baby and go?'”
The 25-year-old decided to enroll at SPC, leaving Harriet with the baby’s father.
“He’s a good man-he understands my career-he said he’d take care of the baby,” she said.
At South Plains, Mwamba became the nation’s premier junior college distance runner, claiming the 2002 and 2003 National Junior College Association of America cross country titles. In 2003 she was named NJCAA Female Runner of the Year.
Mwamba’s accolades earned her recognition back home, as well. Originally employed as a cleric in the Zambian Army, Mwamba has been promoted steadily. Since she left, all because she wins races. After her first NJCAA championship at South Plains, Mwamba received word that she had been promoted to corporal. When she she won the 2003 title, she was promoted to sergeant.
“So I’m Sergeant Mwamba,” she said, laughing.
Upon completing her two-year tenure at the college, Mwamba had yet another choice to make: Which four-year university to run for. She had her pick, including Kennesaw State (Ga.), Adams State (Colo.), and ACU. Upon recommendations from Zambians and a brother who had attended ACU, Mwamba decided to complete college running for the Wildcats.
ACU and beyond
Mwamba had a successful spring competing for ACU in track in field, placing second in the 1,500 meters and third in the 5,000 meters. She even set a school record in the 5,000-meter run.
She is now the leading runner for the ACU women’s cross country team, which will contend for its 12th Lone Star Conference title on Saturday in Durant, Okla.
Despite finishing in the top-5 at every meet this season, running at ACU has been somewhat of a transition. At South Plains, Mwamba got used to placing first. every time.
“I’ve come to understand that in running, you don’t expect winning every time,” Mwamba said. “In running, there’s losing and winning.”
The principle applies to life as well, especially in Mwamba’s case. But the talented, cheerful girl who faced a seemingly losing battle from an early age has been a winner to this point, and she isn’t ready to give up anytime in the near future.
“I really still need to run for my future,” she said. “If I really focus on training, my dream is that one day I will receive a gold medal. I see these athletes running and earning medals, and I ask myself, ‘Why can’t I do that?'”
When all the cards are on the table, the most important thing to Mwamba is family. She aspires to succeed as a professional athlete not for her own recognition, but to support little Harriet, her grandmother, aunts and uncles. With that kind of motivation, Mwamba’s future is limitless.
“That’s probably the unseen story with the international students,” Murray said of the family ties of Mwamba and many international athletes. “They come from such a faraway land. People don’t understand the difficulties they’ve had to overcome to do what they do.”
So far, Mwamba has been able to do many things well. The only person capable of stopping Adeh Mwamba is herself.
And that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.