Westmont Magazine Zola Speaks the Universal Language of Track and Field

by Jacob Norling ’20

Two years after arriving in Santa Barbara, Zola Sokhela ’24 has cemented himself as one of the all-time great athletes for Westmont track and field. The native of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, has won four individual national championships and earned an unprecedented 11 NAIA All-American honors.

Jason Bowers and Zola at NAIA Championships
South Africans Jason Bowers and Zola at the NAIA Track Championships

Most recently, Zola was named the 2023 U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) NAIA Indoor Track and Field Men’s Athlete of the Year, his fifth collegiate honor from the USTFCCCA.

“There are different racing strategies everywhere I’ve been around the world, which is nice because I’ve gotten to bring a new element to racing here at Westmont,” Zola says.

“I also learned from my American teammates, as we’ve been able to compare styles and discuss strategies throughout our training. I’ve been able to feed off my teammates, and they’ve been able to do the same. It’s fun to ask myself, ‘How does what I’m learning now match up with what I know from home?’”

Zola proudly represents his South African roots. During the NAIA Indoor Track & Field National Championships in Brookings, South Dakota, he competed alongside fellow South African Jason Bowers, a friend from back home, in the finals of the men’s mile.

One of the two would likely finish atop the podium. In the end, Bowers displayed a near-historic finish to his mile and got the better of his friend to earn the championship.

Before receiving their first- and second-place medals, the two jogged alongside each other while sharing several laughs during their cool down. Then Bowers made room for Zola atop the podium as the two South African All-Americans posed for photos.

“We come from different states,” Zola says. “So we’d always meet at high-level or national-level competitions. He’s more of a long-distance runner, so we’d never competed against each other until recently.

“We were on the same national team for junior championships, so we’d travel together. Our relationship is really good. We talk about anything outside of track.”

Two hours after finishing as the runner-up in the men’s mile, Zola won his fourth national championship in the men’s 1000-meter run. During the race, Zola ran a program-best 2:25.42.

After receiving his National Championship medal, Zola posed once more with Bowers and their awards. This time the two champions draped themselves with the South African flag and proudly hoisted their championship accolades.

As Zola crosses paths with his fellow countrymen on opposing teams, Westmont’s own track and field team has expanded its number of international student-athletes.

Contemplative Zola at East Beach

“We’ve had Zander von Stade, a fellow South African, and Narindra Rafidimala, a native of Madagascar, join the team as new additions,” Zola says. “Zander is a really strong 200 runner, and Narindra is very talented in the 60 and the long jump. I met them before track started, and we really bonded over being from a similar environment — or at least the same hemisphere.

“Adding to the group’s diversity has made it really fun. It’s really nice to get the whole team together in training because for the whole group, track is really a universal language.”

Zola and the rest of the Warriors will spend the remainder of the spring competing in the outdoor season, with hopes of competing at the NAIA Outdoor National Championships in Marian, Indiana, at the end of May.

Yes, That’s Zola on the Cover

We see MOMENTUM vividly in athletics. Psy-chological and physical MOMENTUM positively propel the body to perform with an enhanced dynamic intensity. As a runner applies force to reach a destination, the MOMENTUM increases with each stride. On the cover, Zola represents our theme: MOMENTUM. He’s the epitome of an athlete performing with great MOMENTUM mentally, physically and spiritually. A four-time national NAIA champion, he strives for peak performance, and his MOMENTUM provides an internal advantage as he achieves his personal best and assists his teammates in being their best as well. In sports, MOMENTUM keeps a team’s confidence high and helps the players find the zone. When your team has MOMENTUM, you feel as though everything is going in the right direction. Westmont honors Zola’s Warrior MOMENTUM and his achievements by selecting him for the cover. We applaud his fearless pursuit to be the best person he can be in and out of his track shoes.