IT’S been nearly four years since he was attacked by three men, who cut off part of his right leg with a chainsaw, but that was not enough to trip-up Mhlengi Gwala’s emergence as an athlete of international class.
With a prosthetic foot attached to his right leg, Gwala is cycling and running once again.
He also swims, minus the prosthesis, which is a necessary discipline in the triathlon events he competes in.
Gwala, 30, said he’s “stronger now than before, even with my running I feel I’m a better runner now and I'm improving all the time”.
Proof of his ability was the time of 18.01 he clocked while running the 5 000 metres event during a meeting held at the Kings Park Athletics Stadium last week.
He also boasts a respectable 10 000m time (37.41), which many able-bodied runners would love to achieve.
Ever since Gwala got back to competitive athletics last year, his hopes to participate in middle-distance running events at the 2024 Paris Paralympics have risen.
But the father of two from Chesterville, Durban, believes his best chance of getting a ticket to Paris is via his performances in the triathlon.
To qualify, Gwala, who works as a lifeguard, must rank among the world’s top-10 triathletes before the cut-off date in 2024.
He is presently ranked 18th in his class of disability.
To achieve his Paralympic dream, Gwala plans to compete at various international events over the next two years, to bag valuable points and boost his rankings.
Gwala was on a training ride on his bicycle in the early hours of March 6, 2018, when his attackers ambushed him near the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s campus in Glenwood, before dragging him into a bushy area.
“My training rides are usually done in morning darkness. I was preparing for the SA Cycling Championships in Bloemfontein when I was attacked.
Gwala said they “took me by surprise”.
“They stopped suddenly and packed their things and left me in the bushes. I was in a lot of pain but I managed to pick myself up, hopped onto the road, and flagged a passing security vehicle.”
The security officer rushed him to the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital.
With assistance from Sue Delaport, a fellow triathlete, Gwala was moved to St Augustine’s for further medical attention.
“I had good support from every community in South Africa and people around the world. Once Henri Schoeman (Gwala's friend, and triathlon bronze medal winner at the 2016 Olympics) tweeted my story, it went everywhere.”
Gwala said no arrests were made and he was not sure who was behind the attack – he speculated it might be the work of jealous people, or those seeking body parts
“It could have been criminals or just jealous people. Sometimes in the community, people don’t understand how a sport works.
If they see you travelling around the country to race, they think you have lots of money, but it is not the case.”
Regardless of what had happened, Gwala’s heart was set on making a return as a sportsman.
“I had it in my mind that I was going to compete again.
“I told myself I needed to focus on sport, even though it might be difficult, and I will find a way to be a sportsman again.”
But he suffered another setback.
After making a full recovery in 2020, he developed an infection in his right leg.
“It healed eventually, after a portion of the leg was amputated. I have been healthy ever since.”
However, sitting at home got Gwala into a depressed state and he indulged in some “bad” lifestyle habits.
“I spoke to my former biokineticist and told him about my challenges. I wasn’t thinking straight and I needed his help to get back into shape.”
Gwala was grateful to doctors Darryl Grobbelaar and Luvan Cass (orthotics and prosthetics specialists) for their constant assistance.
“They helped me with three artificial legs (approximately R140 000 each). I could never afford those.”
In November 2020, he got his first prosthetic leg, but struggled to fit it onto his stump.
“It’s not like trying on a shoe from the shop, it got comfortable with time”
After getting his running blades a month later, Gwala was running again in January 2021.
“That was an awesome feeling.”
A determined Gwala made his return to competition.
His major successes last year included winning the African Championship in Nigeria in June, a second place at the World Series in Portugal (September) and, in November, placing 8th at the World Championship in Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates).
If he is able to replicate those performances in the next two years, Gwala believes he will qualify for Paris.
While Gwala was grateful for what he has achieved since his return, he acknowledges he wouldn’t have made it had it not been for the people, including family, who supported him in the past and present.
He says he is not bitter about the 2018 attack.
“Sometimes I have flashbacks; I accept it will always be there in my mind, and they usually last for a minute, but it doesn't overwhelm me.
“What's the reason to be bitter when so many people have been so good to me?”