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First black athlete to earn an Ironman podium in SA

Sanele Shange finished second in the Ironman African Championship and wrote his name in the history books as the first black athlete to land a podium finish in this sport. Antoine Bezault (France) finished first and and Nicholas Tinkler, also from South Africa, took third place. Picture:Chris Hitchcock

Sanele Shange finished second in the Ironman African Championship and wrote his name in the history books as the first black athlete to land a podium finish in this sport. Antoine Bezault (France) finished first and and Nicholas Tinkler, also from South Africa, took third place. Picture:Chris Hitchcock

Published Jan 23, 2022

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IN SPITE of his humble beginnings and meagre resources, Sanele Shange has shown he has the mettle to compete with the world’s best sportsmen.

Shange, 29, recently became the first black athlete to achieve a podium finish at an Ironman contest in South Africa.

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Shange’s management believe his accomplishment might also be a world first for any black athlete competing in an energy-sapping Ironman contest, where athletes are required to swim 3,8km, cycle 180km and run 42,2km.

They await ratification of that claim.

Sanele Shange finished second in the Ironman African Championship and wrote his name in the history books as the first black athlete to land a podium finish in this sport. Antoine Bezault (France) finished first and and Nicholas Tinkler, also from South Africa, took third place. Picture:Chris Hitchcock

He was competing in the Ironman African Championship, staged in Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), late last year, which drew a mix of local and international athletes.

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Shange placed second in the 25 to 29 age category, behind France’s Antoine Bezault, and that historic achievement earned him automatic qualification for the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii that takes place in October.

Ironman Sanele Shange wants to extend his good form to the World Championships in Hawaii, later this year, after recently becoming the first black person to achieve a podium finish in this code of sport. Picture: Supplied

“It has been my dream to compete in Kona. I feel satisfied that all my hard work has paid off,” said Shange.

The event was his first attempt at a full-on Ironman event, and what made it more stellar was him defying the odds to reach the starting line in the Nelson Mandela Bay area.

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Gary Babich and Sanele Shange with his own Ironman accolade. Picture: Supplied

His travel and accommodation in Gqeberha were paid for by his employer, Gary Babich, who is also Shange’s athletics manager, and both are members of the Murray and Roberts Running Club.

The bicycle Shange used at the event was lent to him by Siata, a KZN-based development cycling club.

Achieving sporting excellence has always been a difficult ride for Shange.

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While some local government heads acknowledged his achievements, their promises of assistance were usually empty.

It has been mainly through the benevolence of people in the local triathlon community, some businesses, and Sanele’s will to achievement that has carried him thus far.

How he’ll get to Kona with the right preparation under his belt and an “A-grade” bicycle to give him a fighting chance to land a podium spot in Hawaii, remains unknown.

But Shange is hopeful.

Through his days at school, he was always an outstanding athlete, and it paved the way for a sporting bursary with uMlazi’s Zwelibanzi High School, for his Grade 8 to 12 years.

His sporting ability then earned him a bursary to pursue a Diploma in Transport Management at a well known Gauteng university.

After completing his second-year of study, Shange was told the funds allocated to him had been redistributed to the other prominent sporting codes at the institution.

He was forced to drop out of university. Shange returned to Durban and did various things to earn a living, including driving taxis.

When his elderly parents decided to move back to their rural home in the KZN’s Midlands a few years ago, Shange, too, had contemplated the move back.

“He had no choice but to go back with his parents and it meant training in a rural area with his bike that was meant for the road,” said Gary Babich, who offered Shange employment in his business.

Babich said he made the offer because he was moved by Shange’s sporting passion, good nature and he was suitably qualified for the logistics-related position.

“I prefer to give someone a hand-up rather than a hand-out,” he said.

Mindful of how expensive it was to compete as a triathlete, Babich, who has completed 10 Comrades Marathons and various Ironman events, said he understood the struggles of some athletes trying to survive in a minor sporting code, with little or no sponsorship.

Babich revealed how in order for Shange to secure his qualification after Gqeberha for Kona, he was required to pay $1200 (approximately R19 000) within 48 hours, as a registration fee.

Thankfully for Shange, a donor who was inspired by what he had achieved, made available the funds and asked for his identity not to be revealed.

Babich shared why he was moved to pay for Shange’s trip to Gqeberha.

Shange lives in Cornubia, a short distance from Babich’s nearby business premises.

“It was always in my head to get him there and he gave me reason to do so,” he said.

Shange’s day usually starts at 3am with his training routine before he gets into his working day.

“When the riots broke out in July, he said, ‘Boss, my bike is in the factory and if it gets looted, I don't have insurance’,” he said.

Babich was concerned that it was risky for him to venture, there but Shange assured him he would be fine.

“He got all our stuff out, including our computers, van and his bicycle… a few hours later, they looted our place.

“Because of his help, we were able to continue with business afterwards.

“He never asks for anything, he makes do with what he has. His spirit and dedication is what inspires me to do more for him.

‘He also saved my Ironman medals in my office, that cannot be replaced,” said a grateful Babich.

They met about six-years ago at the KZN Duathlon (run, ride and run) Championships.

“Sanele finished in one of the top spots in a race held at King Shaka Airport.

“What intrigued me about him was that straight after he finished, he stood at the first water table and handed water to the athletes coming through,” he said.

Babich said some of the women from the Savages Running Club got together and bought him a bicycle and that’s how he was able to progress as a triathlete and eventually to his first Ironman event.

He said that progress included Shange winning last year’s KZN Duathlon Championship running in his second-hand shoes and riding a bike probably costing about a tenth of what the other performers were using.

After his university disappointment, Shange said he tried out the triathlon. By then he had given up all hope of becoming a professional footballer after he failed to impress Orlando Pirates during a trial with the club in 2015.

“I met Gary through his sister Gail. She helped me get my bike and transported me to races. It was impossible for me to travel to races, early in the day, with my bicycle, using public transport,” he said.

Shange said to achieve what he has thus far, lots of sacrifices had to be made and he took seriously that many in his community, including his children, consider him a role model.

The ride to Ironman success has not been an easy one for Sanele Shange, but that has not deterred him. Picture: Supplied

He also appreciated all the assistance he has received from Babich and many others.

SUNDAY TRIBUNE

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