The number of talented Kiwi sporting kids heading to the United States on college scholarships is growing by the year, and Southland provides some glowing examples. Logan Savory reports.
Atipa Mabonga’s parents signed her up for almost any sport available as a kid.
It wasn’t so much about the sport itself, there were other reasons.
Close to 20 years ago the Mabonga family moved from Zimbabwe to New Zealand for a new life.
First stop was Opunake, Taranaki, then Riversdale, Southland before eventually finding their home across the province in Otautau.
Mabonga was about eight when she joined up with athletics in Southland.
She was part of the little Otautau Athletics Club in western Southland.
“Mum and Dad signed us up because the best way to learn a new culture is through sport and through the food.
“Sport was such a great way to meet people.”
At that stage, athletics was more about seeing New Zealand than the world.
“It was such a great way to travel. Me and my brother competed at all of the Colgate Games, literally from when I was five until I was about 12.
“I never had any pressure from my parents to perform. It really was for the love of it.”
But sometimes in amongst the joy of sport emerges an obvious talent.
Through Mabonga’s time at Central Southland College she established herself as one of the country’s more talented young jumpers. She excelled, particularly in the triple jump.
During that evolution as a promising athlete, Mabonga trained alongside another star Southland triple jumper, Greer Alsop, under the tutelage of Lance Smith.
Alsop ended up making the move to the United States in 2014 on a college scholarship. She attended Washington State University.
Yet another Southland triple-jumper Charlotte Muschamp also attended Washington State University, while runner Jordan Rackham went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Before that, runner Christina Taylor had headed to the University of Denton in Texas.
It prompted a lot of intrigue for Mabonga.
“I thought, ‘oh my goodness, what is this? This is like a whole other world’,” she recalls about the thought of living, studying and competing in the US.
By Year 12 at Central Southland College, the thought started to become serious for Mabonga. The offers started to roll in from colleges.
Eventually, the kid from Otautau signed with the Southern Methodist University [SMU].
Mabonga says she would be lying if she said she was not nervous when she put pen to paper and committed to head to live in Dallas, Texas in 2017.
“I remember Mum saying, you can give it a year and if you hate it you can come back home.”
“My mum and dad had made the massive leap to move from Zimbabwe to New Zealand, so I thought, ‘if they can do it, and establish a successful life here, I can do it’.”
Five years on and the now 23-year-old describes the opportunity as life-changing. She is living the American dream and hasn’t looked back.
She established herself as a popular member of the [SMU] track and field team.
In 2018, she was named MVP of the SMU field team and won an academic award as part of the team.
In 2020 Mabonga won the Jerry LeVias Outstanding Athlete Award which is designed to honor an African American student-athlete who exemplifies excellence on and off the field.
But her impact during her four years at SMU extended beyond that. She’s grabbed any opportunity available and developed into a leader. There’s proof of that.
In 2020, she co-founded the Black Student Athlete Committee [BSAC] at SMU.
She says it is largely about making sure people of colour are being heard and providing support where needed.
Despite finishing up at SMU in 2021 Mabonga remains a trustee on the BSAC. She is proud of the work it does.
Mabonga is now employed by the Kansas City Chiefs NFL organisation in a sought-after role.
She joined the organisation last year in a seasonal position as a social media assistant for the NFL Giant.
However, the Chiefs moved to offer a fulltime position as its influencer and culture coordinator.
It’s a wide-ranging role, but in short, she works to help build the players’ and team’s brand, not just in the US but globally.
“It’s an honour to be trusted with such a big part of the Chiefs brand at a young age and so early in my career.”
For the moment she has opted to put her own sporting quests on hold, instead opting to give her body a break.
Mabonga headed to the US with sport the centre of her attention but has gained much more from the scholarship opportunity.
Mabonga will forever be grateful where sport has led her in life.
“It definitely has been one of the most impactful things I’ve ever done. I would do it all again,” she says about the US college experience.
“It’s a lot of work, and it’s not easy. It’s a fulltime commitment, mind, body and soul.
“But for me, I grew so much as an athlete, but also so much as a person. I’m just forever grateful for the coaches that recruited me.
“SMU will always be special to me because it’s where I think I flourished into who I am today.”