The Body Keeps the Score

Merabu Nagwandala Overcomes Illness, Rewrites Record Books in Cross Country

Merabu Nagwandala is an unlikely legend in Georgia Southern athletics history.

She holds six University records in track and field, but it was only a few short years ago that anyone could have imagined her running at all.

As a child in Kampala, Uganda, Nagwandala was a talented aspiring runner, but before she even reached adolescence, she contracted typhoid four times and was plagued by health problems for several years.

“I was running, but I had a lot of health complications and my mom thought sports would never be my thing,” she said. “My health really deteriorated. I was very sick. My legs would swell. So my mom was just like, ‘You may have the talent, but I don’t think your body can handle the stress of training every day and pushing.’ So I put that aside and focused on school.”

Nagwandala spent more than eight years in and out of school and bed rest, watching her friends and family excel in the sport she loved — a cousin who ran marathons, and a brother, Makweta Allen, who ran the steeplechase for Uganda in the 2013 World University Games in Russia.

It wasn’t until her senior year of high school that Nagwandala’s health began to stabilize, but even with her improved condition, she wasn’t thinking of taking up running again. Her brother, however, had other plans.

“I just woke up one morning, and my brother said, ‘You don’t feel sick anymore. And you know, down here they’re recruiting. You know you can go back. I know. I know you. We have grown up together. You just need a year, you know? You just need a few months.’ And then I said, ‘OK,’” Nagwandala recalled.

Allen sent her money for shoes and gear, and gave her the name of several coaches who could help her get in shape. She said she was looking for a coach who could bring her talent from zero to anything, really. It didn’t take long. After six months of training and testing the limits of her endurance, she clocked a personal best 18:15 in the 5,000-meter run and entered her first race.

Against some of the best college runners in her country, Nagwandala pushed herself harder than she ever had before and remarkably placed sixth. The exertion, however, proved too much for her. She passed out and was taken to the hospital. Despite her exhaustion, she decided she was hooked.

“I’ve never looked back,” she said. “I’ve run personal bests ever since. But it comes with a lot of sacrifice and error of forecasts and staying on your goals every day, looking at them thinking, ‘I’m going to get that.’ You can’t lose focus. So the only thing I face is that my body has not built for so long, so my fitness evaporates very fast.”

When she arrived at Georgia Southern, Wes Penberthy, assistant track coach for distance and cross country, said he spent his first three months as her coach showing her what she could actually do.

“It was just like, here’s what we’re doing today for a workout, and she was like, ‘Oh, coach, I can’t do that! There’s no way.’ And then she would run 30 seconds faster than I’d give her for the time. And it was like, ‘See, you can do that, so let’s just keep building.’”

Today, Nagwandala holds University records for the mile, 1,500 meters, 3,000 meters (indoor), 5,000 meters (indoor and outdoor) and 10,000 meters. Penberthy says she’s one of the best he’s ever coached, and has “reset the record books” for Georgia Southern. And with two more years of eligibility, there’s a chance she’ll reset them again.

What’s certain, however, is that with every race she runs and every record she breaks, Nagawandala gains more confidence in her abilities and in her own body.

“My body takes a long time to warm up, so I have to wait for my body where it’s just moving by itself,” she said. “But when my body says, Merabu, go!’ We go!” — Doy Cave