De La Durantaye is extremely active off the court in charitable ways. PHOTO COURTESY OF MAHAL DE LA DURANTAYE

‘Mahal’ is the Tagalog word for ‘love.’ It is also the first name of Varsity Blues women’s basketball player Mahal De La Durantaye, and it could not be more fitting.

De La Durantaye has been a fixture with the women’s basketball program for the past four years, recently wrapping up her last season in blue and white. The journey of the 22-year-old guard, a Neuroscience and Global Health double major, stands in stark contrast to that of a run-of-the-mill U of T student athlete.

Part of what makes her unique is her heartfelt passion and purpose. Beyond her strength as a competitor and love of all things hoops — which often has her wreaking havoc while guarding the other team’s best players — her extensive dedication to grassroots organizations and their initiatives, and her bond with her sister Destiny, Mahal’s heart sets her apart from her fellow peers.

Brave beginnings

On any given weekday afternoon, one can typically find Mahal’s familiar face perched on the rafters of the Kimel Family Field House at the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport. Her usual attire? Hoodie, sweats, and a messy bun. Typical student athlete behaviour for a not-so-typical student athlete.

She grew up in a mixed French-Canadian and British household of four, raised by parents Sherri Jones and Robert De La Durantaye along with her younger sister Destiny, who is two years her junior.

Adopted at the age of five, she moved a total of seven times during her upbringing, attending 13 different schools along the way — mostly before she reached fourth grade.

It was a situation that could have made it easy for Mahal and her sister to grow up lacking a real sense of community or lasting opportunity. However, Mahal’s parents — especially her mother, who she cites as her role model — were determined to ensure that their two girls had the chance to pursue their dreams no matter what.

Her parents’ “open-mindedness” and the “language” they used to discuss her identity — including Mahal’s “adoption… ethnicity… [her] history [and her] family” — clearly affected how Mahal internalized her understanding of empowerment from an early age.

From the little things — like her father, a former MTV employee, playing “culturally appropriate music,” or her mom ensuring she had the right care products for her hair — to more prominent incidents, such as her mom fighting for her to be able to participate in a Filipino basketball tournament that she had been denied entry to due to being mixed race, Mahal felt a sense of pride in her ancestral identity growing up.

Mahal shares a particularly close bond with her sister, Destiny, who is now 19.

“My younger sister Destiny grew up with a learning difference, so I’ve always been protective of her. I didn’t want anyone picking on her at school.” Inspired by Destiny’s courage and will to overcome adversity, Mahal picked her neuroscience major partially to honour her bond with her sister.

Her first encounter with basketball came in the fourth grade.

She began to pursue the game more intensely during the onset of her high school days, but she never missed an opportunity to provide mentorship to others through her school.

In grade 10, she began her own basketball mentorship program for younger girls at The Linden School, the majority of whom were in the fourth grade. In her senior year, she had the chance to travel to Havana for a cultural and sports exchange.

She found herself impressed by the skill level of the Cuban athletes as well as Havana’s cultural and historical significance. More importantly, it was a profound moment where “despite the language barrier, it was amazing how we all still got to bond through sport.”

Student of the world

Coming into university, Mahal relied on basketball to ground her as she adjusted to the new pace of her daily life. “I definitely needed it for structure… I just needed it. It was a good transition, coming into university,” she reflected.

Following a productive first year in which she averaged around 19 minutes per game, Mahal found herself in unfamiliar territory when she suffered a season-ending ACL tear just days away from the start of her sophomore campaign.

“[It] was the hardest thing ever… Bouncing back and having people doubt you… that was just a whole other struggle that I had to overcome.”

And while it gave her a “new perspective” on the game, she also admits that the injury continued to pose a hurdle to her game in the years to come. “Even by my fourth year, I still hadn’t come back to me fully.”

Undeterred by adversity, Mahal found meaningful ways to cement a legacy as a leader. This past season — her fourth with the program, and third of eligibility — she was second on the team in steals, and registered 13 starts. She recorded a career best in total minutes played during the season, and was one of only four players to see action in all 23 of the team’s regular season games. She was counted on for leadership, energy, hustle, and a rebounding presence, and was often in the thick of things during game-changing momentum shifts.

Off the court, however, Mahal’s exhaustive dedication to campus and community life during her four years thus far at U of T has been nothing short of remarkable.

On top of the rigorous schedule that student athlete status demands, Mahal has also involved herself in nearly too many initiatives to count: she’s done educational outreach programs for elementary-aged children, like Blues Buddy Up and Brain Waves; she’s been a program coordinator for the Canadian Sport Film Festival; and she has volunteered with the Brampton Northwest Connects Special game.

She currently mentors youth as a development coach with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, part of the Toronto Raptors organization, and is a three-year member and current co-president of U of T’s varsity board, which advocates for student athletes.

She’s also currently working on developing an outreach program through the varsity board with the YMCA, which would set up sports skills clinics for underprivileged youth.

Amazingly, on top of all of this, she has also found time somewhere in there to fit in her job as a referee for U of T’s intramurals.

Her incredible commitment to impactful, positive change is punctuated by one experience in particular. Last year, for the month of May, Mahal traveled to Middelpos Farm in Western Cape, South Africa, where she worked with Inspire Children & Youth, a local grassroots non-profit whose mission is to diminish rural poverty.

After weeks of planning — and packing “two extra suitcases” — Mahal found herself immersed in the organization’s day-to-day operations as a program facilitator and assistant youth worker. She was a key cog in implementing positive, permanent changes, such as a “brain-shaped food garden.” She also single-handedly built a multi-purpose athletic court from the ground up to provide opportunities for the kids to play organized sport.

It was a life-changing experience, to say the least. It solidified Mahal’s belief in the power of sport to impact lives and create change, and gave her a unique opportunity to apply her academic knowledge of neuroscience to a real-life situation.

The next chapter

Mahal’s playing days in blue and white may be over, but she’s only just beginning the next exciting chapter of her life.

Building on her extensive service work and social action, Mahal recently started her Power of Sport initiative. Her Instagram portfolio, @thepowerofsport_, was created out of a desire to build an accessible platform that would showcase herself, her experience, and her vision, while simultaneously acting as a point of connection and a conversation starter among other non-profit organizations and initiatives.

Captain and fellow graduating player Keyira Parkes, who has known Mahal for about 12 years, described her as a “superhuman” who is a “passionate and considerate leader” with immense insight. “She has a huge heart and always finds way to help people or better a community just because. That is what is unique about her… She has really been an inspiration to me.”

Mahal’s passion for travel has taken her to Italy, the Philippines, Uganda, and South Africa, among other countries. Her love of neuroscience and youth empowerment have immersed her in countless community-led opportunities. And above all, her vision and belief in “the power of sport” are a beautiful combination of all three.

After all, it is a dream rooted in so many affirming instances of reality. From her formative years, in which basketball was a force that brought her family closer together and bridged a language and cultural gap, to her more recent experiences — such as the permanent changes she implemented in a rural community on the other side of the world — her experiences truly embody the amazing “power of sport.”

Mahal’s successes are a direct result of years of blood, sweat, and tears poured into her greatest passions. Nothing has been an accident: her given name, Mahal, was chosen strategically by her birth mother to ensure that she wouldn’t “forget that she loved [Mahal], no matter where she went.”

Similarly, her middle name, Namuimbwa, was selected specifically as a means of maintaining a strong, unbreakable connection to her Ugandan roots, to make sure that “no one would forget” and that she would never be separated from her ancestral line.

It was only fitting that a young woman whose names represent love and strength embodies those two qualities to a premium.

Two extraordinary names for an extraordinary person. The basketball gods could not have predicted it any better.

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