James Mwaura

After setting numerous program records, James Mwuara capped off the 2020-21 season with an appearance in the Olympic trials.

The first five-star freshman recruit in the history of Gonzaga University's athletics was not Chet Holmgren, nor was it the highly touted Jalen Suggs from Minnehaha Academy.

It is none other than junior cross-country sensation James Mwaura.

Mwaura (pronounced em-wara) has established himself as one of the best to ever don the GU uniform since stepping foot on campus as an accomplished freshman from Tacoma in 2018.

Unless you were locked in on the cross-country beat, you may have missed Mwaura’s smooth stride and lengthy resume run over the Snoqualmie Pass and across the Palouse en route to Spokane.

As a senior, Mwaura captured the elusive 3A distance triple crown, winning state titles in cross-country and the 1,600 and 3,200-meter evetns in track. Not only did Mwaura win, he ran the fastest 3,200 (8:46.87) in Lincoln High School history.

As Mwaura surged down the final 100 meters on that warm spring day at Mount Tahoma Stadium, all those in attendance rose to their feet to cheer on the wonderkind from Tacoma.

“Coming off of the home stretch, the crowd was already on their feet cheering for me,” Mwaura said to The News Tribune. “It gave me the motivation to keep going a little bit faster.”

Before Mwaura broke the tape to set the best 3,200-meter mark in the history of Lincoln High, GU Director of Cross-Country and Track and Field Pat Tyson held the record time a mere 50 years earlier.

“He was a superstar, he just so happened to be a superstar at my alma mater,” Tyson said.

Following Tyson’s decorated career at Lincoln, he ran for legendary coach Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon.

More famous than his coach was his teammate Steve Prefontaine.

Tyson compared the cultural impact of Prefontaine in the early 1970s to Michael Jordan, Pele, Tiger Woods and the late Kobe Bryant.

“James is very similar [to Prefontaine],” Tyson said to The News Tribune. “If you put James back in 1969, when Pre was a senior [in high school], there’s no doubt in my mind they are almost replicants of each other.”

Mwaura immigrated from Kenya with his parents and sister when they were toddlers. As he grew up, Mwaura didn’t know what sports he wanted to do. He just knew he wanted to be with his friends.

Mwaura’s father played college soccer at Kenya’s Polytechnic Institute. Naturally, Mwaura tried his hand at soccer as well as wrestling with success in both. Running track and field was a hobby, but his natural ability stood out to coaches who encouraged him to join cross-country and run longer distances.

His success and his effortless running motion led coaches from far and wide to send letters to Mwaura and his family as early as his sophomore year. Thanks to some connections, Tyson was able to make an early home visit to the Mwaura family.

During the visit, Tyson noticed a documentary detailing the life of two-time Olympic gold medalist Haile Gebrselassie on the family’s TV. Endurance depicts Gebrselassie running 6 miles to school while simultaneously working in his father’s field in his native Ethiopia.

According to Tyson, James’s mother simply laughed and said, “that was us in Kenya.”

To know the source of Mwaura’s fearlessness and the tenacity he competes with is to know his family.

“The drive is not for him personally, it’s the pride of him wanting to be successful and help his mom and dad out economically,” Tyson said. “They did so much for him and he wants to give back to them. It’s the American dream.”

Four years after that visit, Mwaura is logging 80-100 miles (the equivalent of running from Spokane to Sandpoint, Idaho) a week as the lead runner for the No. 15 Bulldogs as the team looks to improve upon the result of the NCAA Nationals from a year ago.

Tyson has allowed Mwaura’s high school training regimen to stay intact out of a fear that altering the routine could lead to injury or worse results.

Mwaura prefers a 16-mile-long run on Sundays. During the week, his interval training for the 10K varies between six one-mile repetitions or 10 1-kilometer repetitions. On whatever days remain, Mwaura will rise out of bed at 6:30 a.m. to run his morning miles before a shakeout run in the afternoon.

Not only does Mwaura run more miles than the typical GU student puts on their car in a given week, he does so while majoring in sports management with a minor in business administration and interning for the Bloomsday Run.

Last summer, in his “free” time, Mwaura competed in the Olympic Trials at Hayward Field in the 10K. He qualified for the meet as one of 10 men who broke the NCAA meet record earlier that summer, running 27:50 over 10K (4:29/mile).

“That 27:50 10K made him so visibly respected by his peers," Tyson said. "From the beginning of this cross-country season to where we’re headed, his confidence is way up. He knows he belongs. He knows he’s going to be an All-American if he’s healthy and ready to go in Tallahassee.”

Mwaura’s encore was perhaps even more impressive. At the Olympic Trials, running against professionals and fellow collegians, Mwaura surged to the front of the pack on two separate occasions in his blue and white GU singlet. Mwaura ended the race in 13th place, but proved he belonged in front of a national audience.

“For me personally, going in there it was more about getting some experience and hopefully some day I’ll be there to compete,” Mwaura said. “It left a motivation for me to come back and be competing for a spot for the Olympics or the World Championships.”

In his past two NCAA National cross-country meets, Mwaura hasn’t performed as well as he or Tyson would’ve hoped, placing 138th and 225th, respectively.

When Mwaura toes the line on Nov. 14 in Palo Alto, California, for the NCAA West Regionals cross-country meet, he will have unfinished business to attend to with his teammates.

“If you don’t know any better, he’ll shock and awe you," Tyson said. "You watch him, he just glides. When he gets in a race and he looks at the pros like at the Olympic Trials, he doesn’t look at them as pros, he looks them as guys just like him. That’s the real cool part about James Mwaura.”

For now, the pride of south Tacoma has an entire year of eligibility remaining for cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field.

Mwaura may look slightly different than the other five-star recruits that have graced GU’s campus, but make no mistake, Mwaura was the first. By bringing his exceptional talent to Spokane, he has not only elevated GU's cross-country to national prominence, but also brought his family along for the ride.

“I definitely want to see how far running takes me,” Mwaura said. “If it works out then I can hopefully be a professional runner and see if I can make an Olympic team or a World Championship. If not, then I have a degree.”

Tommy Conmy is a staff writer.

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