Justin Donawa ’19 finds success on the pitch and the track

| 3/27/16 6:16pm

Justin Donawa ’19 began his collegiate athletic career with a bang. On a cool October night at Burnham Field in Hanover, the Dartmouth men’s soccer team was locked in a nail-biter against Ivy League rival Columbia University. Midway through the first half, Donawa made his second career appearance for the Big Green as a substitute, and in the 42nd minute, fired a bullet from 40 yards out that landed in the bottom back right corner of the net. In celebration, Donawa ran over to the sideline, exuberantly punching the air as he was mobbed by his teammates.

When asked about the goal in an interview with Dartmouth Sports, Donawa shrugged off the feat.

“Only being my second game back, I was just looking to make an impact as soon as I came on the field,” he said of the goal. “I actually underestimated how far out it was and just said ‘let me take a shot,’ and caught the keeper off guard.”

Donawa is no stranger to the limelight. At Dartmouth, he stars as a forward and midfielder for the men’s soccer team and as a triple jumper for the track and field team. Hailing from the tropical island of Bermuda, Donawa has represented his country in both soccer and track and field. In his first official appearance for Bermuda’s national soccer team in a World Cup Qualifier against the Bahamas in March 2015, Donawa scored two goals. In 2013, he placed seventh in the world among youth triple jumpers at the IAAF World Youth Track and Field Championships.

“It’s rare that we get a guy like Justin, who’s competed [at the international level], to come to Dartmouth,” said Tim Wunderlich, who coaches jumps and multis events for the Dartmouth track and field teams.

Despite his pedigree, Donawa seemed down-to-earth when I met him in the Collis Center on campus. Dressed in sweats and an FC Barcelona jacket on a sunny Sunday afternoon, he ambles surprisingly slowly for someone with so much speed on the pitch and on the track, in contrast to the fast pace of Dartmouth life. But he’s excited about how his first year at Dartmouth has been so far.

“I’ve really enjoyed it,” he said. “I’m a lot busier, but I love doing both sports.”

Donawa has been playing soccer and competing in track for as long as he can remember. His father, Jay Donawa, described playing soccer as a rite of passage for every kid in Bermuda.

“It was just a natural progression to enroll him in the pee wee program at our local football club,” Jay Donawa said. “He excelled as he raised through the age group ranks.”

His aptitude for track and field also emerged early on. Every year, his elementary school would host a track and field sports day, in which young students were encouraged to try out different track and field events. Jay Donawa pointed out that Justin was named “champion boy” each year he participated, the equivalent to the event’s Most Valuable Player. Not long after, at eight years old, Donawa joined the Bermuda Pacers Track Club, where his father also competed as a kid.

Indeed, Donawa has benefited from the guidance of his parents, both of whom were athletic stars in their day. Jay Donawa starred for Bermuda in many international distance running races, including in the marathon and in cross country. Justin’s mother, Keena Donawa, was a jumper and sprinter in her high school days as well.

“[Justin] often reaches out to me for advice when it comes to his track and field ambitions,” she said.

He began his track career mainly as a sprinter, running the 100- and 200-meter dashes and competing in the long jump. But, when “my coach saw my friend and I playing around in the triple jump, just joking around about it, he told me to try it,” Donawa said. And it stuck.

His success as a youth led him to transfer to the Berkshire School, a private boarding school in western Massachusetts, during his high school years, in order to gain exposure to a higher level of competition. While he was there, Berkshire’s soccer team won the New England Class A Championships three times and was the top-ranked prep school in the United States according to Top Drawer Soccer, which covers prep soccer in the U.S. Donawa was the team’s captain as a senior and was also named a 2014 Boys High School All-American.

But when it came to applying to college, Donawa thought that he might have to finally choose between soccer and track.

“I would say soccer is my first love, but I also love to jump,” he said, a sentiment that he repeated throughout our conversation.

With this in mind, he looked at colleges with the hopes of playing for their soccer teams, with the chance of continuing to compete in the triple jump only as an afterthought.

Chad Riley, head coach for the men’s soccer team, first saw Donawa play when he was a sophomore, when Dartmouth was actually scouting an older player on his team. But they left impressed with Donawa.

“From what we saw that day we knew we would want to continue to track Justin’s progress,” Riley said.

His first season with Dartmouth’s soccer team got off to a rough start when he sprained his ankle during preseason training. Despite the setback, he came back with a vengeance in the second half of the season, helping the team to its second consecutive Ivy League title and receiving honorable mention accolades by the Ivy League for his first-year performance.

“I really feel he is just getting started and has the potential to be one of the most dominant attacking players in college soccer,” Riley said.

After his successful soccer campaign, despite having not been recruited to compete in track, the wheels were set in motion for Donawa to join the track team.

Wunderlich remembered talking to the Dartmouth soccer coaches the previous summer, who mentioned an incoming player also talented in the triple jump. The track team was patient in pitching him the idea of competing for the track team, however.

“I wanted him to go through the soccer season before I talked about the possibility of jumping for us,” Wunderlich revealed. “I left it up to him because being a two-sport athlete is really tough. It takes a lot of coordination between the coaches and a lot of people are involved, as well as managing the classes.”

It didn’t take too much convincing to get Donawa back on track.

“I hadn’t done track since last year, so I gave it some thought, and decided, ‘why not?’” Donawa said.

With that, he decided to walk on to the track and field team this past winter.

“Good things have come from it so far,” Donawa continued.

Good things have indeed come for Donawa in his first indoor track season. He placed second at the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships in the triple jump, and in the process, recorded the second-farthest jump in Dartmouth track and field history.

Donawa’s transition to competing at the collegiate level has been seamless.

“He’s a mature athlete, he knows a lot about the event, and that’s helped him into the system,” Wunderlich said. “He’s also been to a lot of really big meets, and having that experience really helps.”

Competing in both sports has made his practice and training schedule quite hectic. On Mondays, he works out with the soccer team. On Tuesday mornings he does soccer training and then works with Wunderlich on jumps right after. On Wednesdays, he lifts with the soccer team. On Thursdays, he practices with the soccer team and then later in the day works with the track team. On Fridays, if he has a track meet on Saturday, he does the track team’s pre-meet workout — “so that he’s a bit fresher,” Wunderlich said. Donawa attends the meet on Saturday and then gets back to soccer practice on Sunday. But if he isn’t competing on Saturday, he goes to practice with the soccer team on Friday and Sunday and gets Saturday off.

“It’s pretty busy, but it’s manageable,” Donawa said of his schedule. “Most of my time is devoted to soccer, even though triple jump is a more technical event.”

His schedule is definitely skewed to focus on soccer.

“I told him that soccer should be his priority, since he was recruited to play for them,” Wunderlich said.

Donawa also credits his years of work with his track coach at the Bermuda Pacers, Calvin Simons, and his triple jump coach Brian Wellman, who placed first in the 1995 World Indoor Championships in the triple jump. It is as a result of this foundation that, as Wunderlich points out, Donawa doesn’t need too much triple jump-specific work.

“Justin is very good technically, and he’s already pretty strong and fast from soccer,” Wunderlich said. “For me, it’s all about progressing him in the event and getting him to jump far as the season goes.”

His coaches also believe that he has yet to reach his full potential.

“He’s had a good start and he has the ability and mentality to continue to grow as a person and as a player,” Riley said. “His best days are ahead of him and we are looking forward to helping him reach his potential both on and off the field.”

Wunderlich emphasized maintaining a strong balance in the two sports and working not to push him too far.

“He really enjoys triple jump, and I can tell that, but if he gets more involved with our team and we can provide more of a balance, I could see him helping out in other events,” Wunderlich said. “But he’s still a freshman and I don’t want to put too much on his plate.”

Nonetheless, in his first year at Dartmouth, Donawa has already proven himself to be a unique talent.

“He’s someone who’s a special kind of athlete, that coaches don’t get to work with often,” Wunderlich continued. “It’s pretty exciting to be a part of that and try to develop someone.”

The two-sport athlete will continue to work hard on the track and the soccer field.

“The next three years, I’m just trying to do the best I can in whatever I do,” Donawa said. “Hopefully good results come from that.”

Based on what he’s already accomplished, it’s safe to say we can expect more good results from Justin Donawa in the future.