The decidedly African surname of Kobe Alessandro Ndebele, 19, was so unfamiliar to international swimming commentators that they stumbled over it every time he was on the pool deck at the 2021 Fina World Cup series. That’s because there aren’t too many Ndebeles taking part in international swimming meets, of course, though the situation could change if the talented teenager had anything to do with it.
Unlike many of his counterparts, Ndebele isn’t making sweeping statements regarding winning Olympic gold one day. He simply wants to be a better swimmer, which is why he packed his bags in January and headed to the United States to study and train at the University of Texas at Austin. Ndebele had moved to Pietermaritzburg in 2021 to train under renowned coach Wayne Riddin so he’d be good enough to cope with the American college system.
Speaking about his unique name, he says: “I come from a diverse family. My mom’s side is Portuguese and Italian and my dad’s side is Zimbabwean and South African. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a moderate amount of time in all of those countries throughout my childhood, but South Africa is definitely the place I consider my home.
“Although my dad is a basketball fan, he said he found a liking to the name and there was no correlation with [late National Basketball Association star] Kobe Bryant. It turned out to be quite apt, though, as Kobe is one of those that I take the most inspiration from. My second name, Alessandro, came from my mom and my grandfather. He was rather insistent on me having some sort of Italian in my name.”
Having been terrified of water initially, Ndebele, who was born in London, started swimming at the age of three after his mother insisted it was a necessary skill to learn. He attended school at St David’s Marist Inanda in Johannesburg before training with good friend and rising South African swimming sensation Matthew Sates in Pietermaritzburg.
“Moving to Seals Swim Club under Wayne was something I longed to do for a while. I believed that my previous training was mediocre and not suitable enough going forward,” says Ndebele. “It was something out of my comfort zone, but I knew a year of that type of training was necessary for me to get better and be able to cope here in the States. It was a mentally taxing year, but necessary for my development and I’m grateful for that experience.
“I’ve known Matt since we were juniors and we’ve always shared a similar view when it comes to our aspirations and goals in the sport. He was the main reason I moved to Seals and seeing his work pay off was a great thing to witness. It just made me hungrier to share the stage with him one day,” he adds of the world junior record holder.
Riddin was impressed by what he saw of Ndebele in Pietermaritzburg and has hopes of the freestyler being part of a promising relay team at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. “We enjoyed the year with him because he worked well with Matt. He did a really good year with us and at the World Cups he got faster and faster,” says the coach. “He raced well, determined, he trained hard and he adjusted well. That was just one year so hopefully the Texas programme is going to jump him to another level.”
Ndebele is studying psychology in Texas and has already benefitted from being part of the system that produced several South African Olympic swimming champions, including Penny Heyns (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling (both University of Arizona).
“I’ve always been in awe of the collegiate system in the States and the amount of support athletes get. I knew it was only right to pursue the idea of college if I wanted to truly give this sport my all,” says Ndebele. “It’s great. My facilities are world-class and my team is world-class. There’s not much more you can ask for as an athlete.
“The culture of sport here and specifically the swimming culture here is something I don’t think many other places could emulate. The hype and funding swimming gets as a whole elevates the sport to a different level, which is something we lack back home – although swimming in South Africa breeds those with much thicker skin.”
As for his goals in the sport, Ndebele is reluctant to reveal too much. “Vaguely speaking, I want to see how far I can go in the sport. The specifics I’ll keep to myself.” His Instagram biography simply states “Working on a dream”.
“I love chasing those who are better than me. There’s no way to really describe it. Most days suck but there’s always something that gets me up in the morning ready to get on it. Mamba mentality,” he says, referencing Bryant’s famous mantra.
Explaining the term to the Amazon Book Review before his death in a helicopter crash in January 2020, Bryant said: “Mamba mentality is all about focusing on the process and trusting in the hard work when it matters most. It’s the ultimate mantra for the competitive spirit … It’s simple: if you have a goal or a dream, you need to apply the mamba mentality to achieve it. Everything worth achieving needs total focus and dedication.”
As one of the few Black swimmers to make it to the level he has, Ndebele’s story is far from that of the regular South African swimmer. His father owns and runs renewable energy company Emvelo and has the means to send his son to college in the US. Nevertheless, Ndebele is confident things are changing in the sport in terms of representivity. “I believe more people are getting involved in swimming in South Africa. Through more exposure to the sport change will come, which is something I’ve observed as of late. Seeing people similar to oneself doing things you wish to one day do, regardless of the purpose, is a powerful thing.”