Language Barrier Is His Biggest Hurdle : Tanzanian Runner Finds Hope, Hard Work at Santa Monica College

Times Staff Writer

Alphonse Swai, Santa Monica College's star distance runner from Tanzania, is no stranger to hard work, even if he is alien to the sometimes circuitous ways of recruiters at U.S. colleges.

Swai, who said he was once a protege of Tanzanian world-class distance man Filbert Bayi, said he came to this country in 1981 with the understanding that he was guaranteed an athletic scholarship to the University of Oklahoma.

But when he arrived at the campus in Norman, he found that he had to pass an examination called the Test of English as a Foreign Language in order to qualify for a scholarship. The Oklahoma coach who recruited him, who is said to be no longer connected with the university, apparently had not told Swai of the test.

And Swai, now 23, failed the exam, said Pete Kron, an Oklahoma assistant coach in charge of field events, in a telephone interview. "The young man probably never should have come into the country without taking the examination," Kron said.

Worked on Campus

"Now they tell me," must have been the first thought of the Tanzanian, thousands of miles from home and in need of money to sustain himself. Swai, who said he used to pick coffee beans on his family plantation and walk 10 miles back and forth to school each day, had to find a job fast, nearly as fast as he can run a mile or 5,000 meters. He found work on the Oklahoma campus and hung around for about four months trying to figure out what he should do.

It would have taken an international diplomat to discover a way out for Swai--and one of them did. Swai said he got in touch with the Tanzanian Embassy in Washington, and the embassy directed him to Andrew Young, the mayor of Atlanta and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Young, reached by phone in Atlanta, said it was a little more involved than that. He said that Ron Davis, who had coached Swai in Tanzania as part of a U.S. State Department program, had suggested that the runner contact Mike Spino, who coaches distance runners and cross-country at Georgia Tech.

In any event, Swai got together with Spino and later with Young.

Spino said that the Oklahoma coach who recruited Swai sent him a letter saying that he was "already accepted in college," and that after he was found ineligible for the scholarship, "he hung around for a long time working in the cafeteria for room and board."

Weak Academically

"It would have been good to get him here at Georgia Tech, but he just didn't have the academic background for it," Spino added.

Mayor Young also said that Swai could not qualify for a scholarship at Georgia Tech and came to live with Young and his family.

Young said that he and his family have taken in other Africans in the past, although "it's not something (we) go out of our way to seek." In Atlanta, Swai trained with Spino and then went to Brevard Junior College in North Carolina, where he won the state community college cross-country championship in 1983, running five miles in under 25 minutes, Spino said.

Young said that when Swai was living with his family, Swai attended classes at Atlanta Junior College. "He was a very good kid. He would get up in the morning and run seven or eight miles, then go to school and get his lessons and go out in the evening and run another five or six miles."

Ran in Olympics

Swai was selected to represent his country in the 1984 Olympics, and he competed at 5,000 meters. While he was staying in Long Beach before the Games, he called Tommie Smith, who set an Olympic record in the 200 meters at Mexico City and is now coach of men's track and cross country at Santa Monica College.

"He was looking for a place to stay, and he called me and asked, 'Are you Tommie Smith? I'd like to go to school and for you to train me,' " Smith said. He said he told Swai he could not give him a scholarship and that he would have to work to provide for himself and to pay a fee of $85 per college unit at SMC.

An on-campus job was found for Swai, who said he he works with campus police, washing their cars, and for the athletic department, as an equipment man for the football team and helping out in the weight room.

He is also working hard at his running. Smith said he has already broken the school record for 10,000 meters with a time of 28:47. He set a school cross-country record for four miles by running a 21:05 several weeks ago, and then broke tha himself last week when he finished first in 20 minutes flat at the Metropolitan Conference Championships, an individual competition held at Will Rogers Park in Pacific Palisades. Placing second in 20:51 was teammate Yehuda Tzadok, who competed for Israel in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 1984 Olympics.

Sectional Meet Friday

Next stop (or is that go?) for Swai and Tzadok will be the Southern California sectional cross-country meet on Friday afternoon at Bonelli Regional County Park in San Dimas. If the pair do well in that meet, they will qualify for the state championships on Nov. 16 in Fresno.

Smith, whose assistant coach for distance running is Ongaga Isaboke of Kenya, said that he and Isaboke have been refining the running techniques of Swai and Tzadok and that he expects Swai to finish first at the state championships. "He'd better win it all; he has no choice. I'm not going to Fresno for him to take second," Smith said.

Swai, who said it is "comfortable to be around" Isaboke even though their ideas about distance running differ somewhat, said that he and Smith realize he will have strong competition at the state cross-country meet.

But the Tanzanian figures his chief competition will come from Tzadok. "That's the guy I'm scared of. He makes you run better."

Glad He's Succeeding

Spino, the Georgia Tech assistant coach who worked with Swai, and Young say they are glad that Swai is doing well.

Spino said that Swai should be "more comfortable being around another African coach." Spino said that he doesn't know if Swai can "excel at the international level, but that "he should do well" in California.

Young said of Swai: "In any college competition in the world he can hold his own in anything from the mile to the marathon." But he added that he doesn't think that Swai has "really found his distance."

Maybe he will find it at Fresno. He has found himself in the classroom, according to Coach Smith.

Swai is carrying a 2.5 grade point average (out of 4 points) at Santa Monica College, said Smith. He said that academics should come before running for Swai and, since that is the case, he hasn't told him about all the college coaches who are dangling scholarships before him.

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