Jan. 13, 2005
by Jesse Hulsing
The United States is a world power -- a center for commerce, entertainment, and education. It attracts scholars, humanitarians, and athletes from all over the world. Sometimes, as in the case of Husky senior heptathlete Grace Vela, it attracts all three in one package.
Vela was born in Zimbabwe, a developing country in the heart of Southern Africa. Many Americans would describe it as impoverished; Vela, who lived there for her first 12 years, calls it home.
"It was cool," she says. "I lived in the city and during the weekends we would go to the rural area."
It was while in Zimbabwe that Vela, too small to play other sports, was introduced to running. Shortly thereafter, she was introduced to losing, fueling a competitive fire that would eventually take her to Chicago, and then to Seattle.
"They made me run because I was so small; I didn't have other options," she recalls. "The earliest meet I remember was in second grade, I had to race this girl named Grace. Grace and Grace -- I'll never forget it, because she beat me."
In 1992, Vela's father moved to Toronto to study chemical engineering, leaving the family behind with Vela's grandmother. When enough money could be raised, the whole family followed, and Vela's budding track career took flight. Having progressed from the running events to the jumping ones, Vela captured a provincial long jump title as a prep at Toronto's Vaughn High School, and was named her school's Athlete of the Year.
Despite scholarship offers from several Division-I schools, Vela instead traveled to Chicago, to attend Division-II Lewis University.
"In high school I had a really good junior year and a really bad senior year," she says. "I realized that to be competitive at a Division-I level it was going to take a lot more than I had in myself at that time."
Vela had no trouble finding that extra gear at Lewis, earning Great Lakes Valley Conference Athlete of the Year honors after winning five events at the 2003 GLVC Championships. Now ready for Division-I, Vela turned back to the list of schools she had considered out of high school, but hadn't felt ready to attend.
The University of Washington was near the top of the list.
"I fell in love with the facilities," she says. "Purple is one of my favorite colors, and Washington has a purple indoor track. It was really nice."
Vela in 2004 proved she was more than ready for Division-I competition, qualifying for the NCAA Championships in the heptathlon and ranking among the top-10 Husky women all-time in four different events. She also established herself as one of Canada's top track and field athletes, with marks in the 100-meter hurdles, long jump, triple jump and heptathlon that each ranked among the 10-best by a Canadian woman in 2004.
From Zimbabwe, to Canada, to the U.S., Vela has attained some lofty goals in life. That she is able to do so is a testament to her dedication and commitment to success in everything she does.
"I set my goals high, and I hit them," she says. "Sometimes you look at the goals you set and you are like, `Yeah, right.' Last year I wanted to drop a second and a half in the hurdles and a second in the 200 meters, and add a few inches to my high jump, and five feet to my shot put. After setting those goals, I asked myself, `Are you crazy?' Those are pretty steep goals, but I ended up blowing my personal records out of the water."
Vela also has high scholastic goals, and applies the same focus and determination to her schoolwork as she does to her athletic pursuits. An economics major, Vela hopes to focus her post-graduate work on helping developing countries, like her native Zimbabwe.
"I want to make the poor less poor," she says. "I think one of the reasons I studied economics was for my grandmother, because Zimbabwe has been going through such a tough time. I want to make her life easier."
When Vela returns to Zimbabwe after this year's NCAA Track and Field Championships, it will be a loss for the United States. As always, however, Vela is looking not to the past, but to the future, her eye always focused on the next big jump, the next hurdle to clear.