Phatutshedzo Maswanganyi, SA’s new sprint sensation

Fresh from breaking the South African Junior 100m record, the athlete from Soweto has a bright future ahead of him on a sports scholarship in the US, where he will be coached by Olympic royalty.

You’ve just turned 19, are fresh out of school and about to take up a sports scholarship at one of the top universities in the United States. It doesn’t get better than this. Unless your name is Phatutshedzo Maswanganyi.

The young sprinter added the South African Junior 100m record to his list of accomplishments in mid-March in what looks to be the start of an impressive career. He is sure to improve on his 10.06s run at the Athletics Gauteng North Championships, given the calibre of coaching that awaits him in the US.

“I called Coach Carl the night before the run and he told me to just relax, drink a lot of liquids and go do my thing. We spoke for about 30 minutes and he advised me to try and get a good start,” says Maswanganyi.

Of course, every athlete has a chat with their coach before a race. It’s just that in Maswanganyi’s case, this is no ordinary Carl. This is the Carl. Carl Lewis. The great American sprinter. But who is Phatutshedzo Maswanganyi and how did he get to call Carl Lewis, Coach?

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At the University of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre on the Monday afternoon after Maswanganyi made history, he is reliving the feat that catapulted him to national hero status. But he is no longer a stranger to the attention, having already been on television, fielded numerous phone interviews and had his name splashed across news websites.

“It’s been crazy,” says the matriculant from St Alban’s College who was born in Chiawelo, Soweto, taking out his phone to show how much has been written about him. “I’ve not really recovered yet. And it still does not feel like I have set the national record.”

How could it when he remains relatively unknown? “Can I please send you my pictures to use with the story? Because SuperSport used one of Akani [Simbine] with the article they did on me,” he says, referring to a piece on the sports broadcaster’s website.

Ah, Simbine. South Africa’s sprint king. He just had to take the young man’s shine, didn’t he? Maswanganyi laughs it off. “He is the main man. I want to get to his level some day.”

Teaming up with sprinting legends

With a time just 0.17s slower than Simbine’s senior national record of 9.89s, set early in his career, there can be no doubt Maswanganyi will reach the multiple Olympic finalist’s level. He will be training under Carl Lewis, for Pete’s sake. “And Coach Leroy, too,” he chimes.

He is referring to American track star Leroy Burrell, who held the world record in the 100m on two occasions and won Olympic gold in the 4x100m relay.

“I went to America in August after applying for scholarships and I checked a few universities out. There was Louisiana, Alabama and Texas Christian University. But my heart was set on Houston because of Coach Carl.”

He remembers how the agent who called him after he had applied sounded disinterested. “It was as though he had heard it all before and he sounded sleepy. But when I told him of my 100m and 200m times, he suddenly came alive, as if new batteries were inserted into him.”

An 18-year-old with a 10.25s in 100m and 20.7s in 200m would make anyone take notice. But it was when he revealed that he also specialised in the long jump that the agent knew he was speaking to someone special and Maswanganyi was soon introduced to Lewis – an Olympic gold medalist in all three of those disciplines – and a special relationship was formed.

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“We video called each other before I went to America and he told me how much he would like for me to come to Houston. When we met, Coach Carl and I saw each other from a distance and we sprinted towards one another and hugged. It was an amazing experience. And after he and Coach Leroy took us through the facilities and told us what the college has to offer, I knew I wanted to be nowhere else.

“Coach Carl and Leroy asked me what it was I wanted. I said, ‘I want it all.’ Their smiles told me they loved my attitude.”

Young as he is, Maswanganyi knew all about Lewis. “Even before I started running, I had a keen interest in the sport. I’d watched Usain Bolt at the Olympics and I saw a few documentaries of the previous Games. So I knew who Coach Carl was even before we met and I am amazed that I now have pictures with him and can call him for tips on how to approach a race. He has become like an uncle to me.”

The start of a love affair with athletics

Sometime later this year and for the next four years, he will be seeing Lewis every day and learning about running and long jump from the American legend. And this from a boy who only took to running at the behest of school teacher and athletics coach Yao Fasamoah, who noticed his talent when Maswanganyi fancied himself more as a rugby and basketball player.

“Coach Yao got me to do athletics when I was in form 1. And looking back at it all and where I am now, I am very glad I listened to him. He remains my coach still and he was at Tuks when I ran the record.”

It was a record he knew he could achieve. While in the US in August, Maswanganyi competed in a few races and the times he ran made him believe in himself. “I knew I had the ability to break the record. In America, I ran a 6.65 during an indoor 60m race and afterwards Coach Carl said to me I have it in me to run a 10 [seconds in the 100m] by the end of this year. To hear such a legend say those words was very inspirational. It sparked a fire within me.”

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That spark exploded into a blaze during the semifinal on 14 March on the famous Tuks track. The weather was perfect, between 24°C and 28°C with little to no wind, the little that blew being pretty consistent.

“I knew I had to just focus on myself and forget about the competition. The heats were crazy fast and Eckart Potgieter ran a PB [personal best time] of 10.29. My local coach told me not to chase and said a 10.5 would be enough to earn a semifinal spot.”

That achieved, Maswanganyi rushed home to the house not too far from the centre that he shares with Simbine and other athletes for a nap before returning for the semis.

“I warmed up well, did not talk to anyone ’cause I had my earphones on. My competition playlist was groovy this time around with a lot of Fela Kuti. The last song I played before the race was this cool hit by Burna Boy called Wetin Man Go Do. My coach said to me, ‘Hit it hard from the start.’ I found out later that Coach Yao had said that if Eckart is in my semifinal, I would break the record.”

And he did. In style, too. Maswanganyi smashed the previous mark of 10.11s set by Thando Roto.

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“I remember the stadium was very quiet and I was pretty relaxed. I went on to the blocks and focused on my lane and off we went. I transitioned well and just blasted from there. When I crossed the line, I saw the clock was on nine seconds and for a moment I thought I’d dipped under 10. But in the end it came to an official 10.06. The way social media went crazy was unbelievable. Houston was delighted and Coach Carl called. They cannot wait to have me over there and I cannot wait to go, too.”

He has to wait though and hope that the coronavirus pandemic is under control come August, when he is scheduled to travel to the US.

The final of the championships was a bit of an anticlimax after his semifinal run, the enormity of his achievement delaying the other semi a little. Nonetheless, he won the final in 10.24s. His record run was the second-fastest time by a South African this season after Simbine’s 9.91s.

Maswanganyi was hoping to make the Olympic squad, even if only as part of the 4x100m relay team. But with the Games postponed to next year, he could now make it under his own steam. After all, he’ll be trained by the great Olympian Carl Lewis.

Correction, 10 April 2020: Akani Simbine was previously referred to as an Olympic medal winner.

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