Jan/Feb 2011 Leap of Faith Dave Pond
“This is the end of me.”
That was the only thought that raced through the mind of Middle Tennessee State University jumper Sarah Nambawa when, on Dec. 31, 2009, she tore her posterior cruciate ligament while training for an upcoming meet.
An international star on the track and field scene, Nambawa—who competed in six different events for the Blue Raiders during her career—found herself at a personal crossroads as she lay crumpled on the track, clutching her right knee.
But just eight months to the day later, she triple-jumped her way to a gold medal for her native country of Uganda at the CAA Safaricom African Athletics Championships in Nairobi, Kenya. And more importantly, Nambawa says, she found a rejuvenated faith to serve the Lord along the way.
In December 2006, Nambawa—already a seasoned and celebrated athlete in Uganda—arrived in Murfreesboro, Tenn., on an athletic scholarship and found a city like none she’d ever visited. It was complete with new foods, new landscapes, and, perhaps most shocking, a new climate.
“It was so cold,” she said. “I’d never experienced that kind of weather before. Everything was different than it was back home—the way people behaved, the way they handled things. I tried my best, but it definitely took some getting used to.”
Half a world away from Africa, Nambawa set to work establishing a home in Tennessee—specifically regarding a faith community. Nambawa’s relationship with Christ had been ignited the year before she came to the U.S. when a track teammate had welcomed her into a church experience that felt more genuine and natural to Nambawa than anything she’d encountered before.
“It was all in the way they welcomed people and the way they came to share with you about Christ,” Nambawa said. “I knew God, but they helped me to see that I needed to truly accept Him as my Savior. That led me to make my decision.”
Nambawa plugged in at Murfreesboro’s Belle Aire Baptist Church, where she began to serve in the children’s ministry, and soon she became one of the first students to participate in the resurgent FCA Huddle at MTSU.
Nambawa herself is admittedly quiet and shy by nature, but others, including FCA Area Director Brian Harrell, say that her vibrant heart and spirit are vividly apparent.
“Sarah was one of the first students to come in when we were meeting with just five or 10 students,” Harrell said. “Almost immediately, I could see that she was blessed with the ability to build relationships with people. You can see her compassionate heart just pouring out as she interacts with others.”
While everything around her seemed to change through the move to Murfreesboro, Nambawa’s track dominance remained constant. Over her four years of competition, the Uganda native shattered school and conference records, setting the mark at MTSU in the indoor long jump and outdoor triple jump as well as the Sun Belt Conference records for indoor and outdoor triplejump.
According to Nambawa, the biggest perk from the recognition that has come with her success has been the opportunity to share Christ with classmates and teammates.
“If God is on your side, nothing is impossible. What we think is too huge is like nothing to Him.”
“When I’m with my friends, when we are talking about sports and other things, I try to bring Christ into the conversation,” she said. “I’m not a talkative person, but, if I’m in a one-on-one situation, I can really open up.”
Having tried various approaches to sharing her faith, Nambawa has found that, just like in sports, there are certain faith-sharing strategies that work better than others.
“When you mention Christ for the first time, you can see how people respond to Him, and then you go from there, not rushing into it,” she said. “If they don’t seem interested, you can try to find another way to show them more about Him.”
Sometimes, those “other ways” are through the open door of trials and tribulations.
It’s easy for Christian athletes to give God the glory when things are going well, but it’s a much greater test for them to praise Him in the face of adversity. That was a lesson Nambawa learned on New Year’s Eve one year ago.
“I was training on an off-day because we had some meets coming up,” said Nambawa, whose personal training routine keeps going straight through the holidays. “I train on benches, and I have several things that I jump on or jump over. That day, though, I missed, and, just like that, I tore my PCL.”
Nambawa, whose triple-jump victory at the MT Christmas Invitational less than three weeks before had already earned her a spot in the 2010 NCAA Championships, was devastated.
“Sarah works so hard at everything she does, especially track, and she’s one of the most dedicated athletes at MTSU,” Harrell said. “All of her dreams for her senior year and being an Olympic athlete took a big blow that day. When she went down, she was crushed.”
Doctors prescribed a month of rest and broke the news to Nambawa that it was possible she’d never return to competition at the same level.
“I was so down,” Nambawa said. “Every time my teammates would go away for competition, I’d be stuck in Murfreesboro, and I just couldn’t believe it.”
“Then, we went to FCA Camp.”
Despite reservations that stemmed mainly from her limited mobility, Nambawa joined 10 of her teammates at FCA’s annual Extreme Weekend, held in Linden, Tenn. While there, she felt God pulling her out of her despair and shyness and calling her to step forward in faith and share her story with the entire camp.
“I was seated with one of my teammates, and I felt something inside pushing me to go say something,” she said. “After I did that, I just had a peace that, whatever would come, I’d be ready for it. If that meant the end of my competing, fine. I had been carrying so much baggage that I finally just felt free. When I went back to school, I didn’t worry about the injury anymore.”
The change was evident to Harrell immediately, and the two discussed the spiritual shift that had taken place.
“Sarah basically said, ‘Whether I compete or not, I’m going to glorify God,’” he said. “That was a real turning point. It was a complete 180 from what her outlook had been prior to camp. She was just so excited. We’ve seen a different Sarah from that point on.”
With February came knee surgery, but Nambawa defied the odds and even the most positive timetable for rehabilitation by returning to the track in late March to compete in the 400-meter dash at Georgia Tech. A week later, she found herself back in a more familiar setting, winning both the long and triple jump events at Nashville’s Boston-Moon Classic. In May, she qualified for the NCAA finals in the triple jump—an event many thought would be impossible for her to reach—and capped her stellar collegiate career by finishing second en route to her fourth NCAA All-American nod.
“When I got back from FCA Camp, I decided I wasn’t going to jump for me; I would jump for Him,” Nambawa said. “If God is on your side, nothing is impossible. What we think is too huge is like nothing to Him. I’m very happy, and I just want to glorify His name. I will praise Him, win or lose.”
Nambawa concluded her 2010 triple-jump schedule with a trio of international events: the aforementioned gold-medal victory in Nairobi, a sixth-place finish in September’s IAFF/VTB Continental Cup in Croatia, and a fifth-place effort in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, held in New Delhi, India, in October.
These international achievements have made her even more popular as she finishes her Community and Public Health degree at MTSU. According to Harrell, the doors that have been opened by popularity are ones through which Nambawa hopes to keep sharing Christ with her classmates.
“As more people hear her story, they naturally come up to her,” Harrell said. “Right now we have three girls in our Huddle who are coming as a direct result of Sarah, and all of them do the same jump that she does. You can just see these mentor-type relationships growing and how they’re affecting the other students’ spiritual growth. She’s not out here trying to reach a thousand in one day, but she is trying to focus on the people that are right there in front of her.”
It’s a story that has reached not only the world over, but also those closest to her and her walk—or leap—of faith.
“That’s been a real testimony to me in my ministry as I watch Sarah live her life,” Harrell said. “It’s the core value of excellence that we talk about in FCA: being the best you can be where God has placed you. To me, that’s Sarah Nambawa.”
Hometown: Kampala, Uganda
School: Middle Tennessee State University
• Four-time NCAA All-American
• Owns three MTSU records: Indoor and Outdoor Triple Jump, Indoor Long Jump
What others are saying:
“Sarah has always been a quiet person with the sweetest smile. She has inspired us all to believe and press on when things look bad—to turn it over to God and let Him help us soar on the wings of eagles.” – Diane Turnham, Associate Athletic Director and Senior Women’s Administrator, Middle Tennessee State University
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Courtesy of Middle Tennessee Athletic Communications