Plastic bags to World Champs

Four months after he stunned the South African sporting community by running a brilliant 100m race as an unknown, South Africa’s new sprint star, Simon Magakwe, is heading for the world championships in Berlin.

Magakwe’s last interview with the Mail & Guardian was in March, two weeks after he unexpectedly won the 100m at the South African Championships in 10,21 seconds. His achievement was all the more remarkable because he had arrived at the Stellenbosch games “with all his life’s possession stuffed in a Shoprite Checkers bag”, Athletics South Africa president Leonard Chuene said.

Running in hand-me-down spikes from Hezekiel Sepeng, Magakwe (23) scored a breathtaking international “A” standard time, which qualified him for next month’s World Championships in Germany.

This week the M&G tracked Magakwe down in Jamaica, where he has spent the past two months, including four weeks training with Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man.

“Life is funny,” he said in a telephone interview from his base in Kingston. “I cannot believe that I have been laughing and sharing jokes with Usain in the past weeks.”

Before his feat in Stellenbosh, Magakwe shared a single room with his mother, a domestic worker, in Carletonville.
His only source of income was from taking photos outside a home affairs office.

It is not surprising that he said he “has to keep pinching himself”—his life is changing faster than his 100m dash. He has had to undergo a series of physical tests, deal with a queue of agents keen to represent his business interests and be away from his mother since being crowned the country’s sprint king.

But all these events come a distant second to his one-month work-out with the “Lightning Bolt”.

“Just being next to him makes me feel like I have already achieved something big. I cannot put into words how good it made me feel inside when I trained with Usain. It has motivated me beyond measure to take athletics very seriously,” he said.

Bolt is the closest thing to the perfect sprinter after setting three world records at the Beijing Olympics last year. His time of 9,69 seconds is both an Olympic and a world record for the 100m. His 19,3 seconds in the 200m and the 37,10 seconds in the 4x100m relay are also world and Olympic records he set in China.

It’s no wonder that the budding South African sprinter is in awe—Bolt is the first man since the great Carl Lewis in 1984 to set all three records at a single Olympic games.

Magakwe arrived at the High Performance Training Centre of Kingston on May 29 and it was not long before he was taken by Bolt’s warmth.

“For all his achievements and high profile, Usain is down-to-earth,” he said. “He enjoys joking and laughing a lot with everyone. In fact, my friendship with him has grown and I have just been on the phone with him to ask if he can email me some of the pictures we took together.”

The world champion is in Europe preparing for next month’s Berlin World Championships, where he could possibly come up against his South African protégé.

Magakwe might not have raced against Bolt, but he says the lessons he has learned from him have been priceless.

“He [Bolt] spent a lot of time teaching me starting techniques, how to lift my knees when running and the best methods of working the arms in a race. Usain kept telling me that I was a fast learner and that felt great coming from him.

“His only concern is that I am learning too many things in a short of space of time—as you know, I have to represent the country in Berlin. I think he would have preferred a situation that would have let me spend this year perfecting my techniques and getting used to professional approaches to the sport.”

This is understandable when considering that Magakwe won the South African Championships with almost no professional coaching, which is why he was sent to the Caribbean.

“I will give it my best shot in Berlin, but at the same time I won’t be overly disappointed if I don’t do well because there is still so much for me to learn,” he said.

Even so, he returns home a much-improved athlete.

“My two months in Jamaica have been an eye-opener. I feel much stronger and more confident in my abilities, although there have not been any time trials here.

“I will never forget what [Bolt] said to me after he watched me race in the Jamaican trials and I finished second in my heat. He told me that I ran very, very nicely. That, to me, is the best compliment I have ever received.”

Magakwe is looking forward to arriving home on July 31.

“There is no place like home. This place [Kingston] is hot and I have to speak English all the time. It is such a relief to be speaking to you in isiZulu. I also miss my mom’s pap like crazy after two months of mostly potatoes and macaroni.”

Although his stay will be short—he jets off to Germany on August 8—there is something for him to look forward to in Europe.

“Usain has promised to give me my pictures when we meet at the World Championships in Berlin. It will good be to see him again,” said Magakwe.

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