/ 13 June 2008

Getting ready to mount the podium

It has been a long ride from the streets of Brackendowns, in the south-east of Johannesburg, to Beijing. Back in the mid-1990s, bicycles were part and parcel of youthful adventure when Sifiso Nhlapo and his friend routinely rode to the local supermarket or to their school down the road.

Last week, he qualified for the Olympics in the 32-man field for the Elite category in the year that Bicycle Motocross (BMX) makes its debut.

Going into the World Championships in the Chinese city of Taiyuan, all Nhlapo needed to achieve his Olympic dream was to reach the quarterfinals. He left nothing to chance and bagged a bronze medal in the final.

The bronze medal makes Nhlapo a realistic prospect for an Olympic medal. If he wins one, it will be South Africa’s first in the BMX category.

Today Nhlapo swings a regiment of gold, silver and bronze medals, but the magnitude of his latest achievement reads more clearly on his face. His demeanour is self-assured and although he speaks plainly, it is not without passion. His is the story of a young man who made his own way. ”As a child I was just gripped by bike racing. I had posters in my room and collected magazines. It was just a matter of sparking my own flame,” he says.

The Taiyuan achievement bears testimony to an unrelenting spirit that forced Nhlapo’s normally reserved mother, Thoko, to accept the inevitable and show her support.

This mother-and-son partnership was not quite the Tiger and Earl Woods scenario, but the Daewoo family car was fitted with all the contraptions needed to carry a BMX bike suited to competitive racing. Mid-week afternoons were spent transporting the young rider to practice sessions. Weekends were mostly dedicated to race meetings.

Mrs Nhlapo, who is otherwise a quiet soul, would be transformed into a raving fan and heard shouting, ”Go Nhlapo”, accompanied by the sounds of vuvuzelas, each time her son was on the track.

The motherly instinct did not cushion her son’s aggression. Though Mrs Nhlapo would often complain that her boy received rough treatment on the track, she would look straight into her son’s eyes and say: ”You must shove them right back now.”

It is something her son is grateful for. ”I was lucky to have a lot of support from my mom and family who allowed me to follow this dream,” he says.

Nhlapo took to bike racing as an expression of individuality.

”It looked different and appealing. Everyone starts off with a BMX bike, you know, but in this sport there’s that element of ‘how do they do that?’ It’s exciting for me to excel in a sport that nobody else is doing and that is so different to what everyone else is doing. I’m an individual kind of guy. I find being an individual is so much better anyway.

”I’ve participated in team sports at school and it’s good, but if something goes wrong, it’s the team that failed. I prefer being in control of what I do and to know that if something goes wrong, it’s on me,” he says.

Nhlapo has been travelling with the sport since the age of 15, visiting Brazil, Australia and Canada among other countries. ”I took the time when I was young to have fun, experience as much as I could. Things got serious when I won the World Championship in 2005, but by then I was 18 and ready to take on the responsibility.”

By his 21st birthday in May this year, Nhlapo had earned no fewer than five podium finishes in BMX championships the world over. He is currently ranked ninth in the world, according to the international cycling regulator, Union Cycliste Internationale. ”I don’t actually remember what I did for my birthday this year,” he muses. ”It was a normal day, I was training.”

This dedicated athlete has no small ambitions either. Even his email address has ”sachamp” before the domain name.

In Beijing nothing less than a podium finish will suffice. ”I’m going to focus on performing in the time-trial event. Stay safe, work hard and get on the podium,” is his motto.