Tjo tjo … a black swimmer winning 13 medals at an international swimming event! This was the reaction of a colleague when he heard about Malesela Molepo’s amazing achievement.
Last month the 18-year-old swimming sensation, who hails from Penina Park in Polokwane, Limpopo, bagged six gold, four silver and four bronze medals during the Cana Zone three and four Aquatics Championships in Nairobi, Kenya. Was there no competition during the championships? The Mail & Guardian team headed up north to find out.
Unlike many young black sports stars, Molepo comes from a comfortable family. He drives to the nearest gym in his mother’s car and his parents pay for his costs, including his recent trip to Kenya.
Molepo’s physique isn’t that of an 18-year-old boy — he looks 14.
We were taken by surprise when we arrived at his home. In his neighbourhood everybody minds his own business and Molepo doesn’t get the kind of attention stars who live in villages and townships receive. Not even the presence of the M&G team could draw the attention of neighbours working in their gardens or washing their cars.
Molepo did not look excited, either.
An unassuming champion
“This is the kind of reception you get here. People mind their own business,” says Molepo as he ushers us into the house.
There is also nothing to show that a champion lives in the house — there are no medals, trophies or certificates in the reception area. “I keep everything in my room and it’s strange because I don’t even know why I do that.”
Across the room we are sitting in stands a dirty swimming pool. It looks as though it has been neglected for two years. But this is the pool in which Molepo perfected his talent from 1994, when the family moved into the Penina Park suburb. At the time his parents were not happy with his idea of taking up swimming.
“My parents didn’t want me to swim but, because I was a problem child, I would swim when they were not around. I got used to swimming in a deep pool and then took up lessons at school.
“I used to swim during our school galas I also took up cricket, football, hockey and athletics. I found it difficult to find a balance between these sporting codes and decided to stick to swimming,” he said.
Molepo’s big breakthrough came in 2006 when Duggie Eager, a Virgin Active swimming instructor in Penina Park, spotted his talent during a school swimming gala and invited him to join his swimming club.
The following year Molepo participated in his first major event, the level three (under 18) swimming championship, but didn’t win anything.
In 2008 he took part in the Fina World Cup in Durban, where he qualified for the senior nationals taking place in Durban the following year. Again he was not among the medal winners.
The young swimming sensation won his first major medals last year at the Zone Six games, where he bagged a silver medal in the 200m individual medley and a bronze medal in the 50m breaststroke.
“When I didn’t win medals I didn’t think of quitting swimming because I improved my times and knew that my day would come,” said Molepo.
His day came last month when he won 13 medals in Kenya and broke three Cana records in the 200m breaststroke, the 200m individual medley and the 200m fly. He was named best swimmer at the championships.
Speaking of Molepo’s ability, Eager said: “He has improved well over the years. By 2014 he will be one of South Africa’ best swimmers because of his talent. Right now he is focusing on completing his matric and taking his swimming to the next level.”
Molepo sees himself as an average swimmer who would have a lot to offer given the right training.
“My best is yet to come — but only after I complete my matric this year. As of next year I will train more and harder so that I can become one of the best swimmers in the country.”
Molepo’s ultimate goal is to represent his country at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Remember the name: he might be the country’s first black swimmer at the Olympics.