Mbanjwa's river of dreams

A sponsored Opel Corsa van with “Michael Mbanjwa, Dusi Gold Medallist” printed on the sides pulls up at Germiston Lake on Gauteng’s East Rand. As the driver’s door opens, a gold medal hanging on the rear-view mirror blinks, even on a cloudy day. Out jumps Mbanjwa (24), who made history last weekend when he became the first black African to win the Hansa Powerade Dusi Canoe Marathon.

“This is the biggest achievement of my life, which is why I travel with my medal.
I always want to see it in front of me as it will motivate me to do even better,” says Mbanjwa.

Mbanjwa and his teammate, Martin Dreyer, beat more than 2 000 participants in the K2—double kayak—race and broke the marathon record by seven minutes.

The duo had a tough race: their canoe broke on the first day and they fell out of their boat on the second, losing three minutes and giving their opponents an opportunity to close the gap.

“When the radar of our boat broke on the first day we thought that was the end of us because the rules state that you have to finish with the boat you started out with,” he says.

The three-day canoe race takes place along the Msunduzi River, from Camps Drift in Pietermaritzburg to the Blue Lagoon at the Umgeni River mouth in Durban.

Mbanjwa hails from the Valley of a Thousand Hills in KwaZulu-Natal. As a boy he and his friends were encouraged by the late Robert Lembethe to join him during a canoeing practice session. It was Lembethe who nurtured Mbanjwa’s talent.

“It was in 1997. We were on our way to watch football. As we were about to cross a bridge at Nagle Dam we watched Lembethe and his friends getting ready for a practice session. We always wanted to swim in clean water and saw this as an opportunity for a quick dip and nothing more than that,” says Mbanjwa.

As with many boys who grew up in the valley, Mbanjwa’s dream was to be a professional football player. But his football dream was washed out when he climbed in a canoe and took hold of the paddles.

“Lembethe had a canoe club in the valley that practised at Nagle Dam and they taught us a lot of things, but I didn’t take canoeing seriously until I realised I had talent and could make it, despite the fact that the sport is dominated by whites and is expensive.”

The average price for a racing canoe is R15 000, plus R500 for the paddles.

In 1999 Mbanjwa took part in the Dusi marathon for the first time and finished in place 500. A year later he came second in the juniors’ category of the South African Canoe Marathon Championships and was selected to represent the country in England.

“When I was selected for the first time I started believing that I could win. The support from my family was wonderful.”

Since then he has represented South Africa in canoe marathons in Canada, Spain, France, Australia and The Netherlands, among others.

Mbanjwa completed matric in 2003, but could not afford to further his studies. He was approached by the Ekurhuleni Canoe Club to coach its development team, which is made up of 40 African children from the areas around Ekurhuleni.

“I knew that coming to Jo’burg would help me to improve my techniques and my chances of winning the Dusi would also increase because of the quality training methods.”

His performance did improve and Mbanjwa came fourth in the 2004 Dusi marathon and second in 2007.

Now that he has won the K2 Dusi his goal is to win the K1 (single kayak) Dusi next year.

“I hope my win will inspire more black people [who he says have a phobia about water sports] to take part in the sport and accept that accidents happen in every sport,” he says.

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