Nosipho Mthembu is a paddler out of water

The young canoeist is finding life in lockdown and banned from the dam on which she usually trains tedious, but all the running could stand her in good stead come next year’s Dusi Marathon.

“I’m good, but life is boring without paddling.” This was the reply by text from 18-year-old paddler Nosipho Mthembu when asked how she was doing during the government’s Covid-19 lockdown.

It’s early morning, the chickens are awake but only just. Nosipho and her 13-year-old sister Luyanda are in running shoes. After a short walk from their home, they start doing sprints. The start and finish point is right in front of the gate at Shongweni Dam. They have not had access to the water since the lockdown began in March.

“I am not a runner, I’m a paddler. I’m tired of running. Sjoe. Since March, I have had to run… maybe three times a week,” she says with a wry smile.

In March 2013, 12-year-old Nosipho asked her parents if she could join her friends who were paddling at Shongweni Dam, a body of water she looks at every day as she walks out the front door of her family home. “They said no, there are many people dying there … There are rumours that there’s a big snake.”

8 October 2019: Nosipho Mthembu training on the Shongweni Dam. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Sunday Times/ Rogan Ward)
8 October 2019: Nosipho Mthembu training on the Shongweni Dam. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Sunday Times/ Rogan Ward)

She went anyway and took to the canoe like a duck to water. “On my first day, it was a holiday in March. So I went there and I asked the coach and he agreed. I started paddling the first day, and I didn’t even have a swim. So I was a fast learner.”

Not only did she take to the canoe really quickly, a few days later she competed in her first race. “I came last,” she grins. “So my time was good, but I was last.”

Her time was so good she was selected for the KwaZulu-Natal sprint team. “I had to tell my parents, because I made the team to Cape Town.”

Flying the flag 

Since then, Mthembu has represented her province and South Africa, winning gold at the All Africa Games in 2019 in the K4 500m sprint event. “Yoh, it was good. I couldn’t believe I was paddling with one of the top paddlers.”

Nosipho was in a boat with Olympic bronze medalist Bridgitte Hartley who, after competing in three previous Olympic Games, is exactly the person from whom the modest junior can gain valuable experience.

While the 18-year-old is focused on canoeing, she is also repeating two of her matric subjects to improve her results while studying tourism, a completely new subject for her. Her aim is to gain more points in light of university entrance criteria. She was offered a place at Varsity College in Durban, but on the advice of Canoeing South Africa president Kim Pople, Nosipho returned to her matric books to put a plan B in place should injury strike. 

Does she see a future in tourism? Nope. Only canoeing for this single-minded athlete. She has made it her life and set her high. “And that’s Dusi, yoh!”

Having come close with a fifth position last year, she is determined to build on that performance in the three-day canoe race down the Dusi River from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

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“I wanna win the Dusi next year.” It is a statement. Not a pipe dream, but a desire that gets her up with the rooster, doing strength work on the front veranda overlooking the dam.

Like other sportspeople, her hard work has taken a slight detour. Nearly six years after she first sat in a boat, the countrywide lockdown to battle the coronavirus came into effect. And running without paddling to balance out the training quickly lost its appeal. “I even told my mom that [I am not a runner, I’m a paddler] when she was asking me why I’m not running anymore.”

Could this be a blessing in disguise? Her household chores include sweeping and mopping the veranda, which looks out directly on to the dam. After so long off the water, this might seem a cruel and unusual punishment. To win the Dusi is not just about being paddling fit, portages are crucial to winning. And this time spent pounding the tarmac will be putting time into her legs that could prove essential in winning.

Even so, the good-humoured youngster is struggling with isolation from her tribe. “It’s hard. I don’t know. My life is boring,” she said with a smile and a grimace.  

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