Sports Track & Field

Running with a purpose: Meet the South African Olympian representing UH on the track

Shaun Maswanganyi has fought through loss and injuries to become Houston’s star sprinter. | Courtesy of UH Athletics

UH sprinter Shaun Maswanganyi was a forearm’s length away from winning the 100-meter NCAA national title in 2023.

He had stepped onto the starting blocks supremely focused, and as the race progressed, he felt himself ahead of his nearby opponents. As he crossed the finish line, he looked up to the scoreboard almost sure he had just won it all.

I remember standing behind the blocks. I was in the zone, all I could hear were my thoughts and the starter,” Maswanganyi said. “I just remember running through what (UH track and field head coach Carl Lewis) would want: push, power, patience. I remember those words, and everything clicked in my head. At this stage, I’m like, It’s me and the line. I don’t care about anyone else.”

But while he painstakingly waited for the times to come up, Maswanganyi realized he made a mistake: he leaned too early.

“Ninety meters into the race, I started feeling myself naturally start to lean forward,” Maswanganyi said. “I was fighting every urge, but I leaned way too early and I could just feel it. But by the time I leaned, I thought I had it.”

The times came up, and there it stood: third place.

In one of the fastest races in NCAA history, in which seven runners broke the 10-second threshold, Maswanganyi’s school-record time of 9.91 seconds was mere inches away from immortality.

“If I had not leaned, I would have been national champion,” Maswanganyi said. “And that’s the most painful part because I had it in my head.”

Soon after the meeting ended, an accepting yet unsatisfied Maswanganyi began going through old text messages with his best friend and late older brother, Mulalo, who died tragically the previous April. He found an old audio message from May 2021 when Shaun ran a wind-assisted sub-10-second race.

It was an emotional, bittersweet moment for the young South African sprinter, but it was a reminder of just how far he had come and what he had gone through in a tumultuous 2022, as well as motivation for his ultimate goal as a world-class sprinter.

I was going through our chat and I was just listening to some of those whispers and that one voice noted resonated with me,” Maswanganyi said. “It was windy, but to him, it didn’t matter. He was like ‘Keep breaking sub-10, keep doing what you’re doing. I’m proud of you and I’ll always be there for you.'”

Born into a family of athletes — his mother and grandmother were runners and his father was a professional cyclist — Phatutshedzo “Shaun” Maswanganyi grew up in what he described as “borderline poverty” in the Johannesburg township of Soweto with his two brothers before relocating to Pretoria.

He excelled in just about any sport he tried and exhibited a fierce competitive streak that he credits to spending his days with Mulalo, a standout rugby player himself. By the time he was 13 years old, he was a star soccer and cricket player but had zeroed in on following his brother’s footsteps in rugby or working towards playing college basketball.

However, his grandmother was sure he was destined for much more and told him as much in a phone call just days before she unexpectedly passed away.

“She had a vision that I would represent our family name on the highest stage of the world,” Maswanganyi, now an Olympian who currently ranks 33rd in the world in men’s 200-meter race, said. “She was talking on the phone and she was saying all these things, and I was just like, ‘You’re talking about the future, and I’m just worried about tomorrow.’ It didn’t click with me then that she was going to leave us forever. But she knew something we didn’t. She saw the things I never saw myself when I was 13.”

But Maswanganyi never planned on track being his platform to stardom, though. He was hesitant to even run at all.

At the urging of St. Alban’s track coaches, Maswanganyi reluctantly entered an intra-school track meet where he won first place and broke the school’s senior record while still just 13 years old. Soon after, he was thrust into lining up against the South African U15 national champion in a race that changed the course of his life.

I was winning the first 60 meters, but in the last 40 meters, he just blew past me and then I was like, ‘What?’ I couldn’t do anything,” Maswanganyi said. “And after that, I went up to my coach and was like, ‘Yeah, you’ll see me on Monday. I can’t let that happen.'”

With his competitive energy now fully focused and with the guidance of his coaches and his brother, it didn’t take long for Maswanganyi to compete for national titles. By the end of his high school career, he was the South African U20 60- and 100-meter record holder and earned a gold medal in the 200-meter at the 2019 African Junior Championships.

With the help of a scholarship agency, Maswanganyi was contacted by then-UH track and field head coach Leroy Burrell while on vacation with friends. The two had a lengthy call before Burrell handed the phone to assistant coach and Olympic legend Carl Lewis, where he was fully sold. Once he arrived in 202, he quickly built a strong relationship with Lewis, helping him adjust to his new training environment and more importantly becoming his “eyes” on the track.

“He always told me that the best athletes know what they did wrong,” Maswanganyi said. “I’ve gotten to a point where I can make a diagnosis of myself before the doctor diagnoses me, and the doctor can confirm, ‘Oh yeah, you did that or you could have done this or did that.'”

The 6-foot-1 sprinter hit his stride in the outdoor season, eventually winning the AAC title in the 100-, 200- and 4×100-meter and bursting onto the national scene by just missing out on gold in the 100-meter NCAA title. Months later, Maswanganyi made his grandmother’s words ring true when he represented his country on the world stage in the Tokyo Olympics, reaching the semifinals in the 100- and 200m.

“That was one of my most special moments,” Maswanganyi said. “Because my family was so proud of me.”

The 20-year-old phenom elected to return to college for the 2022 season to continue developing under Lewis’ tutelage and look to earn the 100-meter national title, a feat he had never achieved as a teenager in South Africa. But a day before Maswanganyi was set to compete in the LSU Joe May Invitational, he received terrible news.

On April 8, 2022, Shaun’s brother Mulalo was shot and killed at age 29. Unable to fly back to South Africa to mourn with family or even attend his brother’s funeral, an inconsolable Maswanganyi was stuck in a Baton Rouge hotel room, unsure of what to do next with a relay race as the anchor leg less than 24 hours away.

I remember just hearing the news, I was devastated. I was in my room, Coach Burrell was with me, and Coach Carl was with me. They asked me what I wanted to do. They were like, ‘You don’t even have to run. We can fly you back,'” Maswanganyi said. “And in my mind, I’m like, I know how my brother was, I know his energy, I know what he would have wanted of me. And he would have wanted me to go out and compete.”

Despite his heavy heart, Maswnaganyi led the Cougars to a first-place finish in the 4x100m to knock off the Tigers on their home soil, finding solace in words from his mentor.

“Coach Carl told me the story about how he had lost his father and he went to the funeral and flew to LA the next day to go compete because he didn’t want to take time off,” Maswnaganyi said. “He knew what it meant to be the best and to compete at the best and he knew the stakes, so I definitely looked up to that.”

Still, the rest of the year remained a brutal struggle for the sophomore. Injuries derailed what was a promising start to the outdoor season and Burrell resigned after the season, having stepped away earlier in the year due to his son Cameron’s untimely death in August of 2021, and was replaced by Lewis.

Through all of it, Maswanganyi grieved the loss of the brother who helped shape him into a world-class athlete.

“It was definitely tough for me. Still today I think about it. I still feel like calling. It’s just a battle every day,” Maswnaganyi said. “But I understand that things happen in life, and you can never really prepare for it. But how you bounce back is the biggest thing for me.”

He did just that the next year en route to his record-breaking national title race. Maswanganyi blew through the 2023 AAC Indoor Championships with gold in the 60- and 200m and won three more conference titles in the outdoor season. But yet again, the 22-year-old was struck by tragedy when he learned of the passing of his grandmother on his mother’s side.

“It was tough missing both the funerals in back-to-back years,” Maswanganyi said. “But just that motivation that they gave me, that extra push just to keep doing what I do. And to remember that every day, I’m running for a bigger purpose.”

That purpose now drives the sprinter in his final year in college as he looks to finally make things right at the NCAAs before he enters the Paris Olympics. Food poisoning prevented Maswanganyi from running at top form in the World University Games and World Championships in the summer of 2023, and a virus kept him from making the final in the Indoor NCAAs. But since the outdoor season began, the senior has shown out with back-to-back 100-meter first-place finishes in the Tom Jones Invitational and Texas Relays, two of the largest track meets in the country.

Even as he’s entered a crucial stretch of his young career, Maswanganyi’s mind has gone back to that old voice message from his brother. The one that told him to keep going.

“I don’t even need to listen to it because it keeps playing in my mind,” Maswnaganyi said. “Every day when I step on the track, when I just need motivation to get through a rep, I think about how much it would mean to me to make him proud.”

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