- Associated Press - Sunday, July 5, 2015

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) - Since arriving two years ago in Augusta, Pardon Ndhlovu has enjoyed training at a popular location.

The long-distance runner frequents the Augusta Canal - and for several reasons.

“It’s good for my legs and good for my knees,” he said. “And it motivates you, because you see a lot of people on it. You see some of the regulars and they call you by name and I don’t really know who they are.”

If things keep going Ndhlovu’s way, people will know a lot more about him next summer. The 27-year-old graduate assistant cross country/track coach at Georgia Regents has qualified to represent his home country, Zimbabwe, in the marathon in the 2016 Olympics. While his Olympic spot is not concrete, his training plans are. If he makes the Olympics, he’ll represent Zimbabwe, as well as Augusta.

“I like this place,” Ndhlovu said. “I haven’t thought of moving anywhere else. I know a lot of questions are coming. ‘What are you going to do when you graduate?’ I’ll be here.”

Ndhlovu, of Harare, Zimbabwe, has always been an accomplished runner. He started running seriously when he was 13 and, as a freshman in high school, he started beating juniors and seniors regularly. He represented Zimbabwe on the junior level in the 5,000-meter event in 2006.

He dreamed of attending college in the United States, but he struggled to pass the SAT. In 2009, he finally passed the test and found a college home at UNC Pembroke. In cross country, he won the 2012 Southeast Region meet, earned Academic All-America honors, as well as all-Peach Belt Conference honors. In track, he was named the 2013 Peach Belt Track Athlete of the Year and also notched All-American honors. He graduated in 2013 with a degree in international business.

Ndhlovu was able to achieve another one of his childhood dreams at UNC Pembroke when his coach, Gary Aycock, took him to the Penn Relays all four years. He won the 10,000-meter event his junior season and returned to finish third his senior season and qualify for the NCAA Division II Championships.

“That’s one of the highlights of my college career,” he said.

Another highlight came in 2012. Ndhlovu competed in his first marathon in Duluth, Minn. He was a 10K runner who hit a wall at the 16th mile. Ndhlovu finished at 2:31:16, placing 31st out of 3,425 male runners.

“It was a horrible experience,” he said. “After that, I decided to train for it.”

Upon graduating from UNC Pembroke, Ndhlovu found a job working as Adam Ward’s graduate assistant at Georgia Regents. The benefit of furthering his education added to the bonus of working with Ward on becoming a better marathon runner. Ndhlovu started adapting to longer runs, and he found the Augusta Canal a great place to train.

“I like this area,” he said. “There’s great weather. Running-wise, I love the canal. At Pembroke, I ran on the roads and always had a problem with my knees. After I came here, I don’t even remember the last time I had tendonitis. I like this area.”

Ndhlovu returned in 2014 to Duluth. This time, he was better prepared and finished in 2:18:12 - 12 seconds shy of the then-Olympic ‘B’ standard. Invigorated by the near miss of qualifying for the Olympics, Ndhlovu picked another marathon to run in January in Houston.

This time, Ndhlovu found his stride. He finished 10th at 2:16:51, making him the first Zimbabwe runner to qualify for the Olympics - he made the Olympic standard by nine seconds.

Ndhlovu is now eligible for the Olympics, but he has yet to lock up a spot. Zimbabwe can only send three marathon runners (the three with the fastest times). Ndhlovu said four to five other runners are capable of hitting the standard; the qualifying window closes at the end of June 2016.

“I have to continue running faster times,” he said. “Faster and faster to get my spot.”

Ndhlovu’s running career is just taking off. He might represent Zimbabwe, where his identical twin brother, Pardington, is a police officer, in the marathon this fall in the All-Africa Games. He might add another marathon to his agenda in early 2016. In the future, he said he wants to represent Zimbabwe in the marathon in the 2020 Olympics, if not the 2024 Olympics as well. And he plans to compete in the Boston and New York marathons down the road.

“I think I’ve got 10 more years of competitive running in me,” he said. “The good thing about competitive running is you peak as you get older. So I’ll be getting faster and faster.”

For now, Ndhlovu plans to graduate in December with his MBA degree and stick around. If he does, you’ll see much more of him at the Augusta Canal.

“This is my training ground,” he said.


Information from: The Augusta Chronicle , https://www.augustachronicle.com

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