“Just a regular ACL reconstruction,” said the 24-year-old BMX star sitting across from me. Just a regular ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) reconstruction? That is, six months out of the sport you love and that pays your bills, hours and hours of pain, rehab and doubt over whether or not you will return to the form that took you to the top of your sport.
No, the knee surgery that South Africa’s top BMX racer, Sifiso Nhlapo, underwent in February was no regular procedure and, although the injury itself occurs often in rugby and soccer, it still represents significant trauma to the body and is a major setback to any international sportsman or woman, regardless of age.
But Nhlapo has as good a grasp on reality as one could hope for in a young, successful athlete. “It comes with the territory and you’ve got to be prepared every time. It’s not Rif’; it’s ‘when’ it’s going to happen. You are going to get injured at some point. So being prepared mentally is definitely a plus because a lot of guys fail at trying to stay patient,” he said of the knee injury he picked up in an Olympic qualifying race in February.
The setback immediately placed Nhlapo in doubt for next year’s Olympics in London but the man known as “Skizo” is not concerned, admitting to an almost sense of relief that it happened so early in the year.
“Crashing two years ago when I broke my neck prepared me really well to prepare myself to sit out for six months again, and I know the pace I’ve got to go through to get back to the same level I was,” he said.
“It’s almost every second year,” he said, laughing about the injuries that ruled him out of the World Championships in 2009 and 2011. But, if you’re wondering why Nhlapo is so relaxed about his rehabilitation programme, it is because he has already proved that he has what English football manager Ian Dowie referred to as “bouncebackability”.
Just three months after returning to the bike after that broken neck, Nhlapo stormed to a silver medal at the 2010 World Championships in Pietermaritzburg, confirming his standing as one of the top Elite Category BMX racers in the world and showing both himself and his fellow competitors that he has the mettle to overcome adversity.
A sad reality
That silver was just the latest in a series of outstanding results that found their way on to the Nhlapo CV since he accompanied a friend to a BMX race at the age of 13. The Soweto-born youngster was only there to watch but he was hooked and barely two years later was already representing South Africa at the Junior World Championships. Just three years after that he was crowned Junior World Champion in the Cruiser Class and took his first steps into the world of professional BMX racing.
The Nhlapo CV is an impressive one, with the junior world title being followed by an overall second placing at the end of the 2008 European season. There was also a third place at the World Championships that year and that resulted in Nhlapo’s qualification for the Beijing Olympics. That is when he first popped up on the radar, with most South Africans unaware that we had a world-class BMX racer in our midst. But he took a spectacular fall in the Olympic final, when he was well placed to grab what would have been South Africa’s only second medal at the Games, after long jumper Khotso Mokoena’s silver.
“It’s racing,” he said. “It’s crazy. You train for four years of your life to race 30 seconds and, in my case, it finished in 15. That little time could have changed the rest of my life.”
It was a lot for the 21-year-old to deal with, especially with the South African Olympic team’s performances falling well short of expectations. “I literally felt the weight of the nation on my shoulders,” he said. “No one had won a medal at that point and all eyes were on me. It’s something I don’t regret, because I learnt from it, but it’s definitely something I want to better at the next Olympics.”
Just to earn a place at those won’t be easy, though. Spots at the Games in London will be allocated to the nations who rack up the most points before the Olympics. But most nations have three top racers to accumulate those points whereas Nhlapo is pretty much on his own, trying to earn points for the whole of Team SA. So he has his eye on next year’s World Championships in Manchester in May where a podium finish would all but guarantee him a spot in London.
That is, of course, assuming his rehab keeps going the way he wants it to and he returns to the track at the end of August, which is the plan. Another eye-catching Olympic display from Nhlapo could well catapult BMX into the mainstream once again and hopefully play some role in getting the sport the recognition some feel it deserves. “It’s a sad reality,” said Nhlapo, “if you’re in a non-mainstream sport. That’s the way it is and you can’t change it overnight.”
But don’t get him wrong — he is not bitter and still believes he can play some role in changing perceptions.
“There are a lot of kids out there who don’t believe there’s anything else out there to do besides cricket, rugby and soccer and, believe me, there is. There are different sports to go into and you should never believe it is impossible because you come from South Africa or you’re black or you’re a female or you’re a male. You draw your own lines and your own limits. If you limit yourself to certain things, that’s how far you are going to go. But if you keep an open road and keep pursuing your dream, you’ll definitely make it.”