‘I consider myself an African, and she thinks of herself as an American’
A TWO-TIME Olympian and a groundbreaking female athletics coach sounds like a perfect match for one another.
The romantic tale gets even more charming when you are told that retired hurdler Ken Harnden (pictured) hails from the white Zimbabwean community, considered by some to be conservative, while his wife Porscha is African-American.
“I know oftentimes things like this make for a great story,” Harnden told The NewsHawks this week from the United States, where he lives with his family.
“I consider myself an African, and she thinks of herself as an American. So maybe we are the African-American story. I also think we bring interesting perspectives from both sides of the ocean, and I’d like to think that we pass on those perspectives to our athletes – white or black – that we can all get along, that we speak less about each other and more to each other. And that we can make our lives about not just our own success but the success of those around us.”
50-year-old Harnden these days works as a track-and-field coach at Auburn University, where fellow Zimbabwean ex-Olympian Kirsty Coventry made her name in swimming.
Wife Porscha, who is in her mid-30s, has made history by becoming the first female director of an Ivy League combined programme.
“She is an amazing coach in her own right,” Harnden proudly said of his wife. “She is awe-inspiring, a fantastic role model. She is a super successful coach.”
Harare-born Harnden addressed the complexity of a marriage between two people from parallel worlds.
“We deal with all the looks and comments and questions of a multicultural relationship, and we constantly have to remind ourselves that the looks come from a place of jealousy or confusion, because we have a fantastic relationship and support each other to the end,” he said.
“The world is changing, maybe not fast enough in that regard, but I believe it’s changing for the better in many ways. That is not to say that the old ways are not good, I remind my athletes all the time, that the stuff I dealt with in boarding school would never be allowed in today’s world (Harnden was schooled at Peterhouse College). But it prepared me to move across the globe at such a young age. Zimbabwe will always be my home, it is where my family has lived for generations, and I hope I will return to live there in retirement.”
Being a multi-talented sportsman growing up, and attending a school with a proud sporting heritage, Harnden was probably expected to pick a different code to track-and-field.
“Athletics chose me,” he explained. “I was selected for Zim Schools rugby, but I tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) a few weeks later against St George’s. I was an OK tennis player, first team water polo, and somewhat average at a bunch of other sports. After that I told myself that the only option was to come to America and do athletics, even though it was small universities that offered scholarships.”
Harnden first left Zimbabwe to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapell Hill. Specialising in the 400m hurdles, he would record a personal best of 48.05 seconds from Paris in 1998.
He also holds the Zimbabwean record in 4 x 400m relay – 3:00.79 minutes – alongside Tawanda Chiwira, Phillip Mukomana and Savieri Ngidhi – from the 1997 World Championships in Athens.
Harnden went to the Olympics twice, in 1996 in Atlanta and 2000 in Sydney.
“To represent Zimbabwe was one of my biggest dreams growing up – to wear our colours at the pinnacle of sport in the Olympic Games, World Championships, and Commonwealth Games,” he remarked.
“My uncle, Garry, would have represented our country in 1972, but those games were boycotted. So it was more than representing my country, more than representing our people. It was also representing him and my family.”
Rhodesia (Zimbabwe before 1980) had in fact been invited to the 1972 games in Munich, only if they participated with British identity and used “God Save the Queen” as their national anthem. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had imposed this condition even as the white minority government of Rhodesia had unilaterally declared independence from Britain back in 1965.
Threats by independent African nations to boycott the games if Rhodesia was allowed to participate however resulted in the IOC members voting to withdraw the Rhodesians, who had already arrived in Germany for the event.
Thankfully, the country’s racially divided past is not something that got in the way during Harnden’s time.
“I don’t identify with white or black Zimbabweans,” he said. “I played sport against my brothers, and with my brothers, regardless of their skin colour.”
At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, his young brother and fellow hurdler, Iain Harnden, was included in Zimbabwe’s squad.
“The dream became even more in Sydney when my brother and I both had the opportunity to represent Zimbabwe,” he commented.
“Although I had a career-ending injury at the time, the chance to be there together was inspiring. My brother, a fantastic athlete across many sports, in fact, I tell him often that he may have chosen the wrong one. He should have represented Zimbabwe in golf or tennis. Zimbabwe has an abundance of talent for such a small country. We produce a seemingly endless list of world-class athletes across many sports. I grew up with Wayne Black, Miles McLaggan, Fabian Muyaba, Passmore Furusa, Philemon Hanneck, Stuart Carlisle, Gary Brent, and so many more.”
Away from his work at Auburn, Harnden keenly follows the progress of young Zimbabweans on bursaries across the US, and they all look up to him as a mentor and role model from the homeland.
“Zimbabwe has some brilliant talent in the United States,” Harnden stated.
“Currently we have Kuda Chadenga, Makanaka Charamba, Vimbayi Maisvoreva, Donald Chiyangwa, Tapiwa Makarawu, and Privilege Chikara. They all won titles during the indoor season this year in America. The future is bright!”
Zimbabwe still has a special place in Harnden’s heart, but America is home for now and there are plenty good reasons to be there.
“I believe I have adjusted well,” said Harnden. “I miss my home, I miss Kariba, I miss biltong, I miss the people. I believe that my job in the US allows me to help young people from our country attain scholarships. I have coached some of the best athletes in our sport in history – Ngoni Makusha, Brian Dzingai. Oh and then the future, hopefully many more! I also have a wonderful family here, my brother and parents live in Florida. I have two amazing young boys. Gary is 15 and is a budding basketball player, he is already over 6-foot tall and I think he will turn out to be a fantastic athlete. Pierce is 11, also loves sports and he is into reading at a level I could never imagine.”
Pretty much like the rest of the family, if you add in the sporting genes.