Mhlengi Gwala’s endearing smile flickers across his face mid sentence, just as it did in 2017 when we first met in Cape Town at the Triathlon World Cup. Gwala and his good friend Sandile Shange had missed their flight from Durban, and when the host reprimanded them for being late, the triathlete from KwaZulu-Natal simply revealed his pearly whites in response.
The fire in his belly still burns as much as it did in 2018, when we were in the same team during the Discovery Tough Mudder obstacle course challenge in Elgin, Western Cape. He cajoled us to keep pushing through the obstacles; that he was limping was clearly not a hindrance.
Gwala had suffered a vicious attack when some men tried to saw off his leg. But that didn’t slow him down, such is his competitiveness. It is just how Gwala is, a man with an indomitable spirit. This much was initially evidenced by how he fought to overcome an alcohol dependency that nearly left him dead in 2009 from a damaged liver.
His life spared, Gwala set out to be a better man and found the platform through being a lifeguard at the Westville swimming pool. Sportingly talented, he took up triathlon after a chance encounter with the legendary Glen Gore, and he began dreaming. In Cape Town in 2017, having participated in his own event with the rest of the amateurs, he watched from the sidelines, bright-eyed and dreamy, as the likes of Henri Schoeman and company competed with the sport’s royalty from the world over in the main event.
“I’d love to compete with those guys,” he said then. “One day, I’d love to go to the Olympics like them.”
That was his dream then, before the attack that almost ended his athletic career. But it didn’t kill his resolve. Although, granted, when he turned 30 on 12 April, Gwala did not make a wish before blowing out the candles on a cake.
“No,” he responds to whether he indulged in cake for his birthday. “I’m not into cakes, hey,” he laughs. Had he celebrated the way most do, Gwala would likely not have thought twice about what to wish for.
“To qualify for the Paralympics, of course.” It’s not really a wish, more a goal, an objective.
A few weeks before his birthday, the man who has competed in the TPS 4 category since his leg was amputated, made some strides towards that goal by winning the SA Para Triathlon in Bloemfontein. It was the first time he had competed as a para-athlete.
“It was nice to be at the event,” he says at the South Beach lifeguard’s offices where he works. “Initially I was worried about the transitions, but I was happy with my overall performance. My time was on a good level. I did times close to those I’d done when I still had both legs.”
He says he would have performed better had the competition been in a coastal city. “Bloem is dry and at altitude. The transitions were also a bit longer. And from the bike to the running, there was this steep hill which made things a little bit harder.”
Realistic Paralympics dream
Harder it may have been, but Gwala qualified for the African Championships held in June. He won the race in Egypt after securing funds for the event, which he wanted to do along with “a few races in Europe. Qualification for the Paralympics is earned through points and I know that if I can get some podium finishes in a few races in Europe, I can qualify. But it is very costly going overseas for races and we are trying to raise the funds. But it won’t be easy because of the lockdown and restrictions on overseas travel due to Covid.”
A realist, Gwala is not putting himself under undue pressure to qualify for Tokyo. “If I don’t make it this year, there’s the Commonwealth Games coming up next year and there’s also [the Paralympics in] Paris 2024.”
For now, he is just grateful to be able to do the sport he dearly loves following the attack that catapulted him into the world news. The decision to amputate was not an easy one, he recalls.
“It was a long process. I was admitted four times to the hospital for assessments and only on the fifth time was the decision made to cut it. I had to make peace with losing my leg and fortunately I had a lot of support.”
Such is his acquaintance with adversity in life that the man from Chesterville in Durban says it did not take him long to get over the loss of his leg. “For us Black people, it is easy to accept bad things,” he says.
“A lot of us are used to hardships and we don’t dwell on worrying about such. I knew that life had to go on. Of course, I had to get some emotional help through therapy. But I believe that even if you go to a psychologist, if you don’t need the help, you won’t get it. For me, therapy is 10% the psychologist’s effort. The rest is up to you. I was ready to go on with my life as an amputee.”
Even though his attackers are still freely roaming the streets, Gwala has found peace. “I don’t live in fear that they might come back. What happened to me is known all over the world and I don’t see how they could try to finish off what they started. Besides, my leg’s been cut off now,” he chuckles.
“I don’t hate them. I don’t wish for them to be hit by a car or something. All I want is justice. I can’t hold a grudge against them because I don’t know them. Besides, holding a grudge is self-harm, you are the one who hurts inside. If I hold a grudge, I would be denying myself the freedom to be happy I am alive.”
But your life has been turned around by their sadistic acts, Mhlengi. You’re now aiming for a place at the Paralympics instead of the Olympics. Surely that must have some effect?
“Yes, I feel sad sometimes that my life has changed. But I really do believe that what happened to me was meant for me because I can handle it. I think it happened to me because I had the ability to accept it and move on with my life. If you remember, I forgave those people even when I was still lying in the hospital bed shortly after the incident. And there was such amazing support for me from all over the world that it was easy for me to deal with it. I’ve accepted everything and I am forging ahead with my new life just as it is.”
That is typical Gwala. He is a man who handles life with a smile, the fact that he lost one of his limbs like he did notwithstanding.