PORTLAND — When she’s with her teammates, Mary Nyembo prefers to blend in with her environment.

During warm-ups before practice each day inside the Portland High School gymnasium, Nyembo finds her place in the crowd with the Bulldogs girls track team. She sidesteps across the gym with the group. She lunges across the floor in the middle of the pack. She shares plenty of laughs with her peers. She equates herself with her team.

“It’s the best feeling ever,” said Nyembo, a senior sprinter with the Bulldogs. “Last year we had such a small team and it was still fun, but it’s better when there are more people and we’re getting better scores because we have more people. Everybody’s enjoying being here.”

Still, Nyembo has emerged as one of the SMAA’s top sprinters this season, winning the senior 40-yard dash in a season-best 5.4 seconds at a five-team meet last Saturday at the Portland Expo. She also has one of the top three times in the SMAA in the 200-meter dash – tied for third with Bonny Eagle’s Morgan Costa (28.30), behind Scarborough’s Nicole Kirk (28.10) and Biddeford’s Maria Curit (27.20).

However, Nyembo doesn’t feel comfortable about standing out because of her athletic accomplishments. One of her goals, she said, is to stay humble – a vital part of her personality as a competitor, as a teammate and as an individual.

Liz Koharian, Portland High’s girls’ track coach, encourages Nyembo after every good day, after every hard practice. But she never sees any sort of arrogance fuel Nyembo.

“Humility, it’s so important,” Koharian said. “At the end of the day, I want these girls to work hard and have fun. You don’t want to be out there with people who think they are better than you or on a different level than you. It’s important for the girls to understand that, to respect their competitors because they’re out there trying just as hard as you are. Respect them.”

When Koharian is asked to describe a competitor, she thinks of Nyembo.

“A competitor is someone that, even if they’re in pain, they’re somebody that’s going to run through it,” Koharian said. “It might not even be the best idea for them, but they’re driven by that competition. Mary doesn’t show a lot of fear and I think it’s a competition with herself, not with other people. She thrives on it.”

Fear, though, is what kept her from running for two years. Nyembo ran in her first track meet in 2007 as a freshman and whisked around the track at the Portland Expo, surprising herself at her pace in the 400-meter run. But when she heard the bell that signified the final stretch, she stopped, thinking the race ended. Embarrassed, she quit the team and didn’t return to running until last year. She returned with personal resolve, determined to find out what it took to be successful in track.

“I came back and I said, ‘I can learn this event, I can ask my coach what to do,’ ” Nyembo said. “Because I didn’t ask. I just went. I said, ‘I’ll ask Coach, so I know what to do, so I know when to run and how not to mess up.’ And I did and I thought, ‘Yeah! I know what to do!’ “

Nyembo continues to embrace the aspects of track and field. How to handle the nerves before a race. How to stand next to competitors and not view them as adversaries. And how it’s not a race against other people, it’s a race on time.

“It’s not about how fast you are,” Nyembo said. “It’s about time. Don’t compete against other people. Compete against time. Literally. Now, I know that, and I’ve learned that. Every time I run, I don’t stop. I run through the finish line and I keep going.”

Still, the compliments keep Nyembo on an even keel.

“Sometimes I get shy about it,” Nyembo said. “People will tell me, ‘Oh you did so great!’ It keeps me sane and not being overexcited. And it’s about not putting down other people. Even if I am faster or better or whatever they want to call it, I want to say, ‘I am still with you because I am still learning.’ “


Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be reached at 791-6415 or at: [email protected]