More than a Black female athlete

Story by EMALI MACKINNON

For student athletes, being recruited by a top university is a goal. They spend years practicing and traveling to events, often missing out on school activities such as dances and free time with friends and family.

The stress of being a top athlete is even more difficult as a Black female competitor, who may experience racism, sexism or isolation. 

Maya Lebar, a sprinter with the University of Utah Track and Field team, became interested in sports as a child growing up in Spokane, Washington. 

Her adoptive mother allowed Lebar to pursue anything she was interested in. At the age of 4 she developed an interest in competitive skiing. 

“Skiing was always something that my family has loved to do,” Lebar said in a text interview, “so it’s really just a family tradition. My mom had skied since she was little and was happy to find out that we had a really good ski program up on Mount Spokane for me to learn how to ski.”  She graduated from the program and became a completive skier. 

A few years later, Lebar knew she wanted to do more than skiing.

Cecil Jackson, a competitive track and field coach, noticed Lebar when she was in eighth grade and competing in local middle school meets. “He was the person who really helped me learn about track and field and feel confident enough in my abilities to pursue it seriously throughout high school,” she said. She began to train with Jackson with an eye toward running at a collegiate level. 

Shortly after training with Jackson, she began to get recruited from local and out of state colleges. 

The University of Utah was one of those schools that stood out to her the most during the recruitment process. 

Lebar caught Coach Chad Colwell’s attention during her senior year of high school.

She set a personal record in the 400M. The sprinting coach quickly noticed her potential. 

Lebar, who is Black, said she was initially hesitant about attending school in Utah. There is little diversity at the university and even less among the Utah athletics.

“My family was concerned for me and questioned my decisions for coming to Utah. I was nervous that there weren’t a lot of Black people and were less in the athletic community,” Lebar said in a FaceTime interview.

But, once she began to talk to her potential coaches and take a tour of the campus, she said she immediately fell in love. 

Colwell said in an email interview, “After speaking with Maya over the phone, I knew she was someone who we would be interested in not only as an athlete, but as a student, teammate and person. I remember after our phone call thinking how articulate, confident and smart Maya was. And this was reinforced after speaking with her High School coach who raved about Maya both as an athlete and a teammate/leader.” 

Lebar committed to the University of Utah and adjusted quickly. 

Maya Lebar was recruited to run the 400M, 200M and relays. Now she runs short sprints focusing on the 100M and 200M. Photo courtesy of Maya Lebar.

She said her teammates became her best friends. She appreciates how they push her into becoming the athlete she wanted to be. They had the same goals in mind and were just as committed as she was.

One of her teammates at the time was Kat Lakaye. Lebar and Lakaye instantly become best friends and roomed together their freshman year. “Maya was someone who is so strong, determined, intelligent, and would have your back no matter what, she was the type of person you always wanted around,” Lakaye said in a FaceTime interview. 

Despite becoming friends with teammates, she faced challenges as a Black female athlete. 

There wasn’t a space or environment created for her and Black teammates. Over the years, Lebar has been one of the main student athletes on her team to advocate for the rest of the Black athletes and talk about the problems they were facing among their teams.

 After speaking out and creating an environment to be heard, Lebar said she feels more supported now than ever. 

“The school has done a really good job at listening and responding to our needs. People need to see us and create an environment where we feel supported and welcomed also,” Lebar said. “It has become easier to be a Black female athlete now with all the resources and communities Utah has created for us.”

Lebar decided to major in political science with an emphasis in law and politics. She has a dream of one day becoming a lawyer or a civil rights attorney. Her passions include speaking out for social justice and being an advocate for those who have been wronged by the justice system. “ It is so important to know what is going on in the world. Educating yourself and having the ability to speak out on important topics is so empowering,” she said. 

She is a part of a group called “UTAH Group,” which stands for United Together Against Hate. Within this group she plans events and puts together meetings that cover important topics about social injustice within the community and Utah. 

Some events she has organized are Say Their Names Memorial, United Walk, Indigenous Peoples Day Art Walk and Black Reflections Exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. This type of work is what Lebar is most passionate about. 

The reason this became her passion was due to the event that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2018. “I have always been so passionate about social justice stuff. But it all started after the Charlottesville rally in 2018,” Lebar said. “I then realized systemic injustice is really real. This was such a huge moment for me. Yes, I grew up in a white family but I am Black and I am extremely affected by it. I knew I had to become more educated about everything. I began to read about everything like people in history and people that no one knows about. I researched everything until I understood.” 

A fire was lit inside her and she knew something must change and she was going to be that change.