Mhlongo's fast track to Rio

20 July 2016 | Story Yusuf Omar. Photos Michael Hammond.
UCT athlete Mpumelelo Mhlongo has been selected to grace Rio's tartan racetracks at the Paralympic Games this August.
UCT athlete Mpumelelo Mhlongo has been selected to grace Rio's tartan racetracks at the Paralympic Games this August.

Mpumelelo Mhlongo is a jumper by trade. But such is the athlete's prowess, that his coach persuaded him to start sprinting on the side – and now he's been called up to the South African Paralympic team that will burn tartan in Rio this August.

“They're trying to force me to be a sprinter. I'm a jumper,” says Mhlongo. “My coach is trying to get me to carry on in the sprinting world. Eh… I'm not fast enough for that. But, yeah. Still trying.”

That excerpt sums up UCT's 2015 Sportsperson of the Year's personality: exceedingly humble, quietly ambitious and relentlessly successful.

“T44 is tough when it comes to sprinting. They're anticipating that for the first time in history, to get to the finals everyone will need to run under 11 seconds.”

T44 is a classification for disability athletics that applies to an athlete who can walk with moderately reduced function in one or both legs, and for single below-knee amputations.

Fast-twitch fibres

Speed and power are in his genes.

Mhlongo's 13-year-old brother, Asande, electrocutes the 100m in 10.89 seconds, “which may be an unofficial hand time, but still”, says Mhlongo. His sister and parents were also sprinters; neither of them took it farther than school, but they've still got a gallop in them.

“I'm the slow one in the family,” he grins.

It must be great for Asande to have someone like Mpumelelo to look up to, no?

“What do you mean?” laughs the elder Mhlongo. “I look up to the little man. It's the other way round. He's a proper talent.”

Nevertheless, Mpumelelo's the one in the Paralympic squad. He's been given a few weeks off to nurse an injury, but plans to be back at full tilt when the flame is lit.

He recently returned from Turkey, which “was meant to be a more eventful trip”, he admits. Intending to compete in Turkey, Switzerland and Germany, Mhlongo's temperamental knee refused to play ball. So he had to settle for taking in the sights.

The rest will do him good, though. He's aiming for peak fitness to come at the games even though he is off to the UK this weekend for a trial run in the IPC Grand Prix Final.

It's an injury he picked up as a teenager and which nearly knocked him off the tartan for good. 'Jumper's knee', as the debilitating injury is known, struck in Grade Nine and Mhlongo didn't compete again until he came to university.

Excellent though he is, athletics remains his second love. He moved to the suburbs midway through primary school and until then soccer had been his sport. So it remained, despite him taking up high and long jump competitively since then.

With football, it's been a case of, close, but no cigar. On the eve of high school, he had the chance for a place in the prestigious Mamelodi Sundowns academy, but his dad pulled the plug on the deal with Mhlongo not attending the final rounds of trials. He continued playing very seriously until Grade Ten, but moved his focus to rugby and basketball, which were more established sports at his school, Kearsney College.

When did the dream of going pro in football die?

“It hasn't died yet!” he laughs.

Red-hot, on and off the track

Mhlongo is planning to graduate with a BSc in chemical engineering this year. It's a hectic schedule in its own right, even without juggling a top-class athletics career.

“I have amazing friends,” he smiles. “The support structure has been ridiculous. I've been kicking and fighting but they've dragged me through. Not to mention what UCT Sports Admin and the Chemical Engineering department has done for me and of course the people who are unlucky enough to have me call them family.”

He plans to pursue a master's degree and PhD immediately after his undergraduate studies, after which he is obliged to work for Sasol for a few years, as per the terms of his bursary.

Studying further will indulge his curiosity for computational thermodynamics, hone his research skills and give him more time to run, before he enters the working world full-time.

Computational thermodynamics. Ten points if you don't need to Google what that is.

“It's about surfaces; what bonds to surfaces and what doesn't; why there may be vacant sites, and so on,” Mhlongo explains.

Champion company

Mhlongo exploded onto the international scene at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha last October. He pretty much bossed it.

Not only did he set African records in the long jump and high jump in the T44 category, but he rubbed shoulders with some of his idols.

“Doha was amazing. It was really enjoyable to meet all the big names. A bit scary, too. I was just, 'I know this person! I've watched this person since I was yay high!'” he says, holding his hand about two feet off the ground.

“To be a part of a team with so many legends was the biggest part of Doha for me.”

It was a privilege to be part of that team, says Mhlongo. Now he's going to be part of the biggest team of them all.

“That's even scarier! Don't even know how I'm going to handle that.”

One said legend is sprinter Arnu Fourie, whom Mhlongo has great admiration for. 'Mr Consistency', as Fourie is called, had run in Oscar Pistorius's shadow for many years.

“For me, I've never seen it that way, but society has put him in that light. He always produces the expected performances when everyone least expects it. Very humble guy as well.”

Then there's the discus and javelin legend Zanele Situ.

“'Sis Zanele is an idol. She's been in the Paralympics for the longest time [since 2000]. Year after year, she's still producing the works. Very old, but still showing us youngsters how to do it.”

Mhlongo only started racing in T44 in 2014, when he had himself classified and registered at his coaches' behest.

“It's hard with disabled sports to make that mind-shift,” says Mhlongo. “Until 2014, I had never had myself classified. I was competing with the non-disabled team and in Grade Nine made the KwaZulu-Natal junior team travelling to Johannesburg that year.

“Once I had that mind-shift that this is who I am and this is where you make the most of who you are … the name [disabled] has a lot of connotations that you don't want to be associated with. I think a lot of people are scared of pity, which is what comes with the name.

“But once you meet the people behind the name you find it's actually the opposite. There are incredible, incredible stories. They're powerful beyond measure. The connotations are ludicrous.”

Still, it's hard for the reality of the situation to sink in. Mhlongo is about to compete at the highest level in world athletics, after his injuries had him just about giving up in high school.

“It looks like what wasn't a dream, should have been a dream and is now a reality.”

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