/ 21 January 2019

The athlete who refused to die

Mhlengi Gwala.
Mhlengi Gwala. (Facebook)

“I knew that if I didn’t make peace with what they did to me, thinking about it over and over might eventually kill me,” Mhlengi Gwala said, reflecting on the men who attacked him and tried to saw off his legs while he was training in Durban last year.

The name might ring a bell, but the punchline to his startling narrative is one that still sends alarm bells ringing across the sporting world. Actually, around the world. Period.

It takes a macabre mind to want to rob a man of not only his life but also his means to an end. Murder manifests itself on a disturbingly regular basis in South Africa, but sabotage such as this is so cold and calculating that it leaves hauntingly unanswered questions. The attack on the legs that freed Gwala to dream of destinations afar and goals anew was so specifically savage that he still has one question:

“I know that those who came for me were sent by someone else. They were sent specifically to do just that, so my question is, who sent them? Why would a person want me to suffer like this?”

The irony is that Gwala’s regular job is that of a lifeguard. He is paid to save lives. He works at the Westville swimming pool, making sure that all who use it are safe. He also works on the Durban beaches, where he and his fellow Hasselhoffs play a crucial role, especially during the holiday period.

On arrival at the Westville pool, the lady at reception plays a prank. She deadpans that Gwala no longer works there and has been relocated to the beach. The information is in stark contrast to his confirmation of the appointment at “around 9am, when I have a quick break for cereal”.

Happy place

The lady, revelling in her role as cruel jester, pretends to carry on with her duties. There is no sign of Gwala and everyone else is going about their day. Kids swim, a pair of teenage lovers chat under a tree and the old ladies slowly swim their laps for the day.

“Have you been helped yet?” asks a male voice from behind.

It is Gwala, with a smile as wide as the swimming pool. He admonishes the lady at reception, then explains that she is there to screen guests who might not be who they say they are. He ushers me into the office and shares one more laugh with the lady as he prepares his cereal. It is immediately apparent that he is in a happy place at work, surrounded by laughs and friends — and the unsuspecting victims of their humour.

Imagine, then, how twisted you would have to be to want to kill or harm a man whose daily responsibility is to saves lives. Even now, there is a sense of disbelief in his voice as he recounts that crazy, sixth day of March 2018. He trails away when he gets to the actual savagery. But what the mouth doesn’t articulate, the mind plays over and over.

Quite understandably, too. How do you forget watching someone trying to saw your legs off?

And yet, incredibly, Gwala has taken that ghastly act and reconstructed it into a new dream. His goals as a tenacious triathlete may have been cut short, but Gwala has simply found another way.

The 2020 Paralympics have suddenly surfaced as a beacon of fresh hope, a chance for him to reach a pinnacle he had never even considered in his carefree days. It is in keeping with a life that he admits has had its challenges, but also plenty of cheer. To know him properly, though, would be to go back in time a bit. At least as far back as the beginning of his adult life, which reads like a movie.

To know Gwala is to realise that triathlons truly are a walk in the park for him, given some of the challenges he has already encountered. To really know him would be to realise an indefatigable spirit, a melting pot of human mistakes and superhuman makeovers, a freakish ability to use sport as a recurring lifeline. At times, competing and even training has been therapy for a young man who has always been naturally fit.

Mates and merriment

The Gwala of 2019 may be known to a lot of people, but you have to go back to 2009, in late December, to really understand how deep the wells of character run in his veins.

“I was young, working and lucky enough to have parents who were both working. So, though I helped out a bit, what income I had was disposable.”

As is the case with many 18-year-olds, Gwala got into booze and partying, willing away his nights in Chesterville with mates and merriment.

“I was drinking. A lot! I was young, having a good time and not really worried about much. I didn’t realise how much harm I was doing to myself until I ended up in hospital. It was 10 December 2009 and the doctors said my liver was taking severe strain.”

He nearly spent that Christmas in hospital, having collapsed on the way to the doctor for a check-up. There, in that waiting room, he met his first good Samaritan in a long time. A fellow patient heard him mention that his liver was going yellow and suggested an over-the-counter solution that had worked for her.

“I had to mix a spoon or two [of the nutrition drink] with water, then drink it. Every day. Within two weeks, the doctors said I was showing good signs of flushing out my system. I don’t know who the lady was, but she was a godsend.”

While his health was on the mend, Gwala had other problems. He had lost his job as a merchandiser in Durban because of his alcoholic state. So, professionally, he was in a bad place, thanks to too much of a good time. As the rest of the country looked to 2010 as a potential bounty, he pondered what fresh hardship the year might bring.

It was then, sitting with the same friends that he had partied with, that a plan was hatched. As he faced up to the sobering reality of his young life of excess, one of his friends suggested he try and kill time by helping out at the Chesterville swimming pool.

There, he met his real lifesaver, Zamo Ngcobo.

Becoming a lifeguard

“That guy changed everything. He taught me how to swim, but he also taught me about life. He really saved my life,” says Gwala.

Though it might strike some as peculiar that an 18-year-old needed to learn how to swim, it is an African reality that has never fully been tackled. Proficiency in water would save many lives, but until it is a fundamental part of the rural culture — instead of a supposed luxury — there will still be terrible accidents. Gwala says he was actually better equipped than many others.

“I had learnt the basics. I knew how to stay afloat. I guess you could call it something like a doggie paddle!”

Ngcobo encouraged him to become a lifeguard and get some structure in his life. The doggie paddle developed and morphed into a powerful crawl. He was on his way and the tide had turned in other aspects of his life, too. He mixed that punishing regimen in the pool with another job in Pinetown, working in a factory.

The life of a lifeguard is no Baywatch scene. Its routines and rhythms are dictated by the raging sea and the rampant mob that the waves sometimes attract. Danger lurks every minute and the lifeguards stand on high, on guard.
Dressed in red, and on red alert.

This was the rejuvenated Gwala, working long hours and swimming, moulding his mind and body into a symphony of intent and contentment. Such was his focus that even when he finished his shift at 10pm in Pinetown, with no public transport around that time, he would simply be his own wheels.

“I would bring my takkies to work and then run home to Chesterville [about 13km, with the final stretch downhill] when I was finished. It would normally take me 45 minutes, if I ran hard.”

The other alternative was to sleep uncomfortably at the factory, then wake up at first light to go home, and then come back to work. “It was a simple decision. I just ran.”

There is a freakish simplicity in that approach but, as he says, all the challenges of his youth were clearly steering him towards far greater adversity down the road he has run in his almost 28 years.

And, to be true, what Gwala was doing was not completely alien. Thousands of people rise before the sun, on the outskirts of Durban and other cities around South Africa — rising an hour earlier and walking to work in unison is a norm.

The reason for walking is not even about health. It’s about trying to put away extra pennies, perhaps for a child on their way to school or an unemployed relative spending the day at home with their thoughts.

What Gwala did might sound extreme, because he ran like the wind and made it seem easy, but he was part of an army of foot soldiers.

Hobby to obsession

As the lifeguard routine took shape, he got more and more competitive. Gwala earned a short-term resident contract as a lifeguard at Westville, then got even keener on dominating the regular triathlon competitions held on the beach. The combination of swimming and running graduated from hobby into obsession and he fed off the constant challenge to get better.

“It was very competitive. I knew that I had to be top five in everything, because those standings helped us to get contracts each year. My running was stronger than my swimming, but I was improving all the time.”

He readily admits that had he started swimming at a younger age, it would have been a lot easier to compete as an adult. But he doesn’t frown upon the hand he was dealt, because it has given him much. “I love winning. I think we all do. That is why we enter races, or play sport. I have always loved that sense of competition, and those championships were a great source of pride.”

While he was showing great stamina as a lifeguard, he was intrigued and decided to add one more feather to his cap and become a triathlete. Admittedly, it was a clumsy beginning, on ill-sized bikes. He was a muscle-bound novice, all enthusiasm and no technique.

“That bike didn’t last long, but I got a lot of help and encouragement from the cycling and triathlon community.”

That is the remarkable thing about these endurance sport in South Africa. Be it running, canoeing, triathlon or mountain biking, there is an unwritten code that each one must look after the other. Perhaps it’s at the top of the forms you sign when you join these crazy gangs who undertake torturous slogs across tough terrain with a smile and a “why not?”.

It was this attitude that brought Gwala into the triathlon ranks, and there he met Olympic medallist Henri Schoeman. He is a friend, in the sincerest sense of the word. When 6 March 2018 happened, it was Schoeman’s tweet that brought Gwala’s situation to light, leading to a crowdfunding campaign to help tackle the mounting medical bills of his fellow competitor.

They stand together, these ultra athletes, because there is an unflinching, mutual respect for what they put themselves through on a regular basis. It is physically impressive, sure, but the mental fortitude required is something else. Which is why Gwala slotted right in. By the time he became a respected rival in these new fields of his, his personal circumstances had also changed. He was a father and had to put food on the table.

Hitting the road

Gone were the days of his youth, the reckless partying and scant regard for what tomorrow might bring. In their stead, Gwala now filled his days with responsibility, rehydration and a respect and appreciation for second chances.

Thus, his ambitions to become an international triathlon star were in order. He was making his way, too, with his running ability already renowned as being near freakish. That’s what running sub-45 minutes to get home after a long shift in a factory will do for you. It creates uncommon reserves of endurance in the legs. Heck, it was as if he had been born with an extra lung, because the energy wells appeared even deeper than the oceans he had to traverse.

“I know that is where I can make up time on my rivals, because their swimming is better than me. On the road, when I am feeling good, I know I can catch people.”

It’s a primal instinct and one that is ideal for the final leg of one of sport’s most brutal codes. There are no losers in elite triathlons. Someone just happens to win a bit faster than the rest. And so, when Gwala was racing in the United States or Canada and showing his worth, you can forgive him for thinking ahead and figuring that the next five or so years of his life were mapped out.

Of course, life then threw a deplorable curveball at him on that awful day. On his bike, early in the morning, and then the ambush. “I think they must have been following me for a while,” he starts.

At this point, the tone of the interview becomes hushed. The days of booze and stumbling were detailed with an almost cavalier attitude. It didn’t matter who was in earshot, because those tales came laced with a shot of reality. There was a happy ending to that crazy chapter in his life. This, however, took some getting used to.

“They knew I was coming, and that I would be alone.”

The details are horrific and have been reproduced enough times not to put him through that again. To this day, he cycles and runs with his eyes alert to potential danger. It’s in the pool that he finds the most serenity, and in the pool that he can temporarily put aside the disability his attackers left him with.

“It was hard to shift my thinking from being an able-bodied athlete, and now being considered a disabled athlete. It’s not normal. You are usually born with disabilities, so it felt weird for a while saying that.”

Guardian angels

It is not supposed to happen that way and it very nearly was a lot worse. He almost lost his lower right leg completely because of the significant nerve damage.

“Dr [O’Sharran] Singh saved my leg. He operated on the nerves when it looked like it couldn’t be saved. There are so many people I have to thank for being here today,” he says.

His eyes glisten like the blue Westville water he peers across — still on duty — before he starts reeling off his guardian angels. The physiotherapists and doctors at the Prime Institute, in the bowels of the Moses Mabhida Stadium. The generosity of so many people during the crowdfunding, from around the world. The medical bills were astronomical and they simply kept coming.

Consider how pricey it is to go for a regular check-up with a GP when you are not on medical aid. Now ponder how much it might cost to try and save a leg?

His parents, his partner Hlengiwe, his two children, his friends, his adopted moms on the triathlon circuit, his technical support… all their prayers and well wishes, those were other, hugely important figures in his life.

They surrounded him in his darkest days, when nightmares plagued him as regularly as friends frequented his days. They enveloped him with love, showered him with encouragement.

Politicians visited, trying to make sense of it all. Gwala doesn’t name them, but they know who they are. Sometimes, those that govern the country are accused of treating tragedy as an opportunity to canvass and deviate from the moment. But, on occasions such as Gwala’s, it was heartfelt.

Lest we forget, they are also parents, and they also dread to think what retributive horrors might have crossed their minds if it was their child who had been through that ordeal. It’s a lot.

Giving the Grim Reaper the middle finger, twice

Twice now, before the age of 30, Gwala has looked on as death beckons him closer. And twice he has found the means to go the other way. His surname might translate as coward, but he is the absolute antithesis of that.

In his early days of rehabilitation, it would have been easy to slip back into the bottle during the arduous barrage of tests, consultations and heavy medication. Society would have understood, and sympathised. But sitting in his hospital bed, Gwala counted his lucky stars.

“I’m forgetting someone. Someone hugely important”, he says, urgently reminding himself. “Bab’ uGumede saved my life.”

Gumede was the security guard on duty on 6 March, so he was first on the gruesome scene. He was yet another lifeguard in a narrative that has required several to get to this point.

“Without him, I wouldn’t be here now. No way. He saved my life by being there at that time.”

He stops and blinks away the memory. It would also have been easy for the hitherto jovial Gwala to grow bitter and wary of the world. But somehow he has retained that spirit of ubuntu.

He has chosen to embrace everything life has thrown at him and is now looking to inspire others. He is training aspirant athletes to carry the torch. He has housed two of the most promising in his home, so that they can quickly get used to the demands of being a triathlete.

Paralympic aspirations

He is also still happy to spend his short breaks with sport scribes intrigued by his relentless drive. As we chat, the Weetbix that should have been his quick breakfast sits cold and untouched.

Happily, that is not the way the Gwala story ends. He has a new dream, one that could take him to the Paralympics in Tokyo next year.

“I never imagined that I would ever compete on that stage. It’s amazing. I am a C4 disability in cycling and I am now waiting to see what criteria I need to meet for qualification.”

There is an urgency in his voice again, a sure-fire sign that the competitive machinations of his mind are already turning over the possibilities.

“Just being there means you are a winner. It is hard to get there. It’s the biggest stage in the world.”

That is all so unflinchingly true and Gwala would almost warrant a medal just for getting there in 18 months. Sitting on the side of the road, screaming, with his leg almost sawed off, he could have thrown in the towel and accepted grim defeat.

Instead, he found a flicker of hope and has been jealously guarding that light since. How fitting would it be, then, if he took that candle of hope all the way to Tokyo and placed it next to that other flame that takes centre stage every four years.

He says a medal would be crazy, but that it may well be the best way to say thank you for the incredible support he has received over the past 10 months. Incredibly, he doesn’t think his considerable words and deeds so far are enough.

And so, as he so often has, he will strain every sinew to be in peak condition come the winter of 2020.

“I always say you have to prepare as much as possible to be a winner. You have to be at your best. And then, even after all your training, you still need a bit of luck to get there first. Everyone on that starting line has also trained hard,” he says. “Trust me, if I get to the Paralympic Games, I will be ready.”

After everything he has been through, there isn’t a shadow of a doubt that one of South Africa’s most incredible tales of adversity will be ready. He ought to be a motivational speaker, or the subject of an inspirational movie. The only problem with that, of course, is that he keeps adding exciting new chapters to an already riveting screenplay.

And then still has the cheek to say he is just a lifeguard. — NewFrame