Mayyi Mahama clearly likes the idea of being a student-athlete, as opposed to an athlete who feels tethered unwillingly to academics. Otherwise she probably wouldn’t be attending the University of Pennsylvania. After all, it’s an Ivy League school.
But Mahama, of Pullman, has noticed something about her track and field career. She tends to raise her game when the school year is done.
It happened during Junior Olympics competition after her senior season at Pullman High last year. And it happened again this summer following her freshman year at Penn.
For one thing, she placed second in the women’s hammer throw at the Pan American Under-20 Championships last month at San Jose, Costa Rica. That capped a remarkable surge that saw her shatter a personal record to win the same event at the United States U20 Championships in Miramar, Fla., in June.
“School — I love it, but sometimes it’s a stresser,” Mahama, light-hearted as usual, said by phone Friday from Pullman, where she’s spending a few weeks before heading back to Philadelphia for her sophomore year. “When school ends, that’s when I can focus on my throwing, and I think that’s where my big numbers came.”
Her winning mark in that U.S. meet was 215 feet, 5 inches, the second-best toss ever by an Ivy League woman. If she had mustered the same throw while representing Penn at the NCAA Championships at Austin, Texas, earlier in the month, she’d have been the top freshman placer and 11th overall. As it was, she fouled on her first and third throws during prelims, settling for last place among 24 qualifiers, at 182-6.
“How do I say this?” Mahama said. “The atmosphere at (NCAA) Nationals was good, it was friendly, I really liked it there. But I just feel like I didn’t have that high-level competitive experience. I think it was good for me to go (to the meet) my freshman year, so now I’m prepared for the mind set I need to be in.”
The same was no doubt true of the U20 Pan Am Games, where she placed second with a throw of 202-1, a couple of feet behind the winning mark by Liz Arleen Collia of Cuba.
Mamaha’s upside is incalculable. She just turned 19 in June and is relatively new to track, especially to the hammer, which isn’t a sanctioned high-school event in most states. Washington offers it unofficially, and longtime Pullman High throws coach Mike Hinz encouraged Mahama to give it a try. She wound up winning a state title in that event as a senior, shortly after claiming official state 2A crowns in the discus and shot put.
“I do have to give props to coach Mike,” Mahama said. “Without him, I would not have even known about the hammer.”
She could have landed a track scholarship somewhere, but her interest in the arts in general and cinema in particular drew her to Penn, whose affliliation with the Ivy League prevents it from offering explicitly athletic scholarships.
The school suits her, she said. She spent the first nine years of her life in Jersey City, N.J., before her parents divorced and her mother took her three children to Pullman. Mayyi’s father and other relatives are within a two-hour drive from the Penn campus in west Philadelphia. And downtown Philly is just a $2.50 subway fare away.
Mahama is also pleased with the Penn track program and throws coach Jeff Pflaumbaum.
“Sometimes coaches say there’s more potential in you, and you’re messing up in drills and you’re trying to get better and you’re like, ‘All right, sure,’” she said. “But every practice he’s always saying I’m getting better. Even if I don’t believe him, he keeps on saying it. I’d like to thank him for that.”
The Penn women have now won back-to-back Ivy League team titles in both indoor and outdoor track, which according to Mahama reinforces a sense among the athletes that achievement in sport is important to the school. It’s not all academic.
“We try to foster a competitive spirit,” she said. “We’re not in the Ivy League just to be in the Ivy League, and sports are secondary. We’re student-athletes — we do focus on academics. But sports are important to us as well. I enjoy the fact that we’re all in it to win it.”