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Pandemic providing unique opportunities for Dzaka

Written by Matt Johnson for Sask Sport
Photo courtesy Huskie Athletics

When Mavis Dzaka first enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan and joined the Huskies Athletics track and field program as an athlete in 1999, it’s fair to say she didn’t anticipate to still be a key figure in the program today.

It was 2011 when then Huskies head coach Joanne McTaggart approached Dzaka about returning to the Huskies a volunteer coach. Dzaka has been there ever since.

Dzaka, who was already coaching with the Saskatoon Track & Field Club, took on the role and learned under the tutelage of McTaggart and the late Lyle Sanderson, with the position continuing to grow since.

With the Ghana-born and Saskatoon-raised Dzaka being selected to be a part of the Black Female Coach Mentorship Program in November – a new initiative from the Black Canadian Coaches Association and the Coaching Association of Canada to increase equity and diversity within the Canadian coaching ranks – the potential for more growth within that role seems inevitable.

When we have our Zoom calls, everyone looks like me. It’s eye opening.

Dzaka on her experiences in the program.

“I consider myself lucky to be selected,” said Dzaka.” “I knew that coaching was going to be different this year so this summer I decided that I wanted to do more professional development things for myself in coaching. So I thought, ‘You know what, I’ll just put (an application) out there.’”

Two weeks later that decision to apply turned out to be a great one as Dzaka received a congratulatory email and was selected as one of 17 mentees across the country to receive the honour of being a part of the inaugural 2020-21 class.

As a part of the program, Dzaka meets virtually with a mentor once a month and takes part in professional development opportunities with guest speakers from across the country covering topics that range from leadership and communication to mental health and racism.

“When we have our Zoom calls, everyone looks like me. It’s eye opening,” said Dzaka.

“I feel like I’ve gained a little bit more confidence and, even though I haven’t really seen my athletes, just confidence in my abilities.”

As Dzaka alludes to, the 2020-21 track and field season has been one unlike any other with no face-to-face interaction with athletes in months, but nonetheless, when opportunity permits the experiences will prove instrumental.

“The goal is that once the world gets back to normal, there’ll be that fluid opportunity for Mavis to say ‘hey, you know, I was a part of this, I learned this.’ and I’m hoping that she can really force me to kind of challenge some things that we’re doing and make our entire program better,” said Jason Reindl, current head coach of the Huskies’ track and field program.

We have a very small Black athlete population within the team and with Michael and Mavis, I think there are some supports and connections there that I just can’t be a part of.

Jason Reindl, head coach of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies track and field team, on Mavis Dzaka’s impact

One particular athlete who Reindl notes has thrived from Dzaka’s coaching is Michael Akintunde, a Black athlete who thrived in his first year with the Huskies, winning a silver medal in long jump at the 2019-20 Canada West Championships in Saskatoon.

“He’s a really great kid,” said Dzaka, who noted Akintunde’s tremendous upbringing and how their relationship has evolved since getting to know one another.

But Dzaka’s coaching style is one Reindl has noticed that has positively impacted more athletes than just Akintunde.

“We have a very small Black athlete population within the team and with Michael and Mavis, I think there are some supports and connections there that I just can’t be a part of,” said Reindl.

“Mavis isn’t the one to yell and scream within a practice to motivate the athletes that she works with. But she is extremely focused, committed, motivated and wants to work with the individual to help them achieve their goals. So when she’s at practice and in that environment, she’s dialled in and she brings a lot to the group and the team,” said Reindl.

The contributions of a volunteer coach like Dzaka to the Huskies are not lost on Reindl.

“They are the lifeblood of the program,” said Reindl. “Their commitment, their dedication, their time, just everything is a huge part of our success. Any adjective, superlative or praise I could give would still come up short in trying to convey their importance to our program.”

“When you look at a coach like Mavis, she doesn’t have to do this. This is her choice to be a part of that. That makes me so happy and so proud.”

For Dzaka, the success and development of the athletes means everything. “That’s one of the reasons why I became a coach. All of my coaches were volunteers and I knew that they were sacrificing and I wanted to give back in some way and it’s very rewarding. My pay is seeing them succeed in whatever events they’re doing.”