Sudanese-born Mach excels for GV

GVL/Kevin Sielaff
Wuoi Mach runs in the Men's 1,500 meter race on the first day of competition. Grand Valley State University hosts, for the second year in a row, the annual NCAA Division II Track and Field Championship competitions Thursday, May 21, 2015 through Saturday, May 23, 2015.

GVL/Kevin Sielaff Wuoi Mach runs in the Men's 1,500 meter race on the first day of competition. Grand Valley State University hosts, for the second year in a row, the annual NCAA Division II Track and Field Championship competitions Thursday, May 21, 2015 through Saturday, May 23, 2015.

Jacob Arvidson

Imagine living the first half of your life as a refugee in a foreign country.

This was the reality for Grand Valley State star runner Wuoi Mach.

The second Sudanese Civil War had been raging for over a decade before Mach entered the world. At the age of 5, he and his half-sister were taken out of the danger area and placed in a refugee camp in northern Kenya. That was life for Mach until 2006, when the United Nations and Bethany Christian Services stepped in.

The Sudan native has not forgotten the testing times that made up the first half of his life.

“I definitely have flashbacks of those times,” he said. “But I try to turn it into a positive thing instead of the negative images I might have had at the time when I was little.

“When you’re a competitor, you’re going to try and find anything you can to motivate you to do the best you can do. I wouldn’t say it or show it to anybody, but when things get hard you have to dig down deep to what you think can motivate you the best.”

After Mach and other refugees were taken out of Kenya in 2006, they were brought to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they attended public school. Mach headed to Grand Rapids Christian for high school. It was in high school gym class that his hidden talent as a runner emerged.

“The gym teacher told us we had to run the mile,” he said. “Coming into class, I was afraid to ask what a mile was because we used kilometers where I came from. I asked him after class and he said it was four laps around the track and it was pretty hard.”

At the time, basketball was a big part of Mach’s life. The gym teacher told him to bring his basketball shoes and to follow the fastest kid in the class, and to try and keep up. The fastest kid in the class happened to be one of Grand Rapids Christian’s star runners.

“I ended up beating him by like 20 seconds,” Mach said. “The next day, the track coach was at my basketball game and he told me I should come out for track.”

Mach went on to post huge numbers for Grand Rapids Christian as an 800-meter standout. It was enough to catch the eye of GVSU track and cross country head coach Jerry Baltes. The challenge for Baltes was getting Mach to choose running over basketball.

“We shared with him how good we felt he could be in the sport of running and how it could help him grow as a total person,” Baltes said. “I think the fact that GVSU has a great support staff for academics and the care professors show for student-athletes helped Wuoi understand GVSU would be a great place for him to be successful in all areas as a student-athlete.”

Mach was redshirted during his first year due to his test scores coming out of high school.

“His redshirt gave him a full year to grow as an athlete, but mostly focus on his academics and get off on a good foot,” Baltes said.

Mach didn’t like it at first, but looking back, the extra year helped him learn a lot.

“At the time, I hated it,” he said. “At the end of the day I’m a competitor. I want to be out there competing with the best. Being redshirted, I wasn’t always in the fast heat because I was running as an unattached.

“It’s hard watching people that you know you’re faster than. But I got to learn a lot training-wise and the system with Jerry, so that definitely helped.”

Baltes’ system was driven home by Ethan Barnes. Barnes was a redshirt sophomore when Mach entered GVSU.

“Ethan is a great student,” Mach said. “He’s already graduated, so of course I’m going to follow his lead. I know he’s going to do everything perfectly. If I follow exactly what he does, I’m going to be in the right hands. I just try and take little things from him.”

The relationship goes both ways.

“(Mach is) fun to be around, keeps a light atmosphere at practice and makes runs enjoyable,” Barnes said. “We enjoy hanging out outside of practice. Putting in 60 to 70 miles a week with a person really creates a special bond.”

That special bond has helped impact both runners as they race.

“It’s kind of funny,” Barnes said. “Wuoi and I sort of communicate before races without talking. Just a quick look and a nod is all we need. No one would really ever notice the teamwork that goes into racing without experiencing it. Several times in the mile, Wuoi yelled back to me a quick word of encouragement. We know how to race near each other to make it a team effort. We do what we can for each other. Together, we can get places we might not be able to get to on our own.”

Having Barnes alongside is a big advantage for Mach, but an even bigger advantage comes from having Baltes as a coach all year. Because Mach runs both track and cross country, Baltes is training with him nearly every day.

“Training-wise, he knows where I’m at exactly at all times,” Mach said. “He’s there for every workout I do. He knows how I’m progressing with stuff, how I’m feeling that day or if I should take the day off.”

Being with him consistently, Baltes has a pretty good idea of Mach’s talent.

“He is one of the most talented individuals I have worked with,” Baltes said. “I continually have to keep finding ways to challenge him to compete well while not overtraining him.”

Mach’s toughness and his willingness to work hard have propelled him to the top.

“Some people see Wuoi and think that because of his build, African heritage, or for some other reason, that he is naturally and easily a good runner,” Barnes said. “He is certainly blessed with a lot of talent, but the amount of hard work that I see him put in at practice, every single day of the year, contributes far more to his success than anything that is beyond his control.”

Mach never seems to lose his charismatic smile. Only when the gun goes off does his facial expression turn to one of complete focus. It’s the relaxed attitude and approach to running that has allowed him to excel.

“He’s always been a guy that doesn’t worry about the technical, mental aspect of running,” Barnes said. “He just goes out and runs.”

Years from now, when Mach has graduated and moved on from GVSU, people will look back on his career and remember him not only for his speed, but for his selflessness, Barnes said.

“Wuoi will be remembered as a person that steps into any shoes that need filling,” he said. “He has stepped up to help in the 10K in cross country, stepped up to double in the mile and (distance medley relay) at nationals, and stepped up to run three events at conference. Whatever is needed, he will do. Not many people can or are willing to do this.”