Ntando Mahlangu Picture by Waldo van der Waal

Having won a silver medal in the men’s 200m at the Rio Paralympics, aged just 14, South African sprinter and long jumper Ntando Mahlangu took it a step further at this year’s Games in Tokyo.

This time, he went for gold on September 3 in the T61 class [for athletes with double leg amputation above the knee] and is fervent in his desire to unite a nation behind him, amidst yet another COVID-19 wave and economic struggles.

Arguably, there has not been a South African Paralympic star better placed to do so since Oscar Pistorius, a national hero until he murdered his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day in 2013.

Mahlangu, 19 who also stars in the Netflix documentary Rising Phoenix, has inevitably been compared with Pistorius throughout his career. Both are double amputees due to fibular hemimelia [where babies are born without their calf bone] – Pistorius amputated below the knee and Mahlangu above.

But Mahlangu, in his final year of high school in Pretoria, is adamant that the differences between the pair are many, and that his is the only story he wants to tell, despite always having to push aside the Pistorius-shaped elephant in the room.

“It doesn’t make sense for me to tell someone else’s stories about how they got to a certain point and then try to say that’s [my story too]. [Pistorius and I] live in two different worlds with everything – there’s no similarities,” Mahlangu told ESPN.

“I don’t think it [being compared] is a frustration… It’s just that people connect dots in the way that they want to connect things. If you get frustrated with it, then people tend to [take it the wrong way].

“You just have to tell people, ‘I am not who you see me as. I am Ntando Mahlangu and this is what I stand for and what my journey is.’

“At a very young age, I decided that I was going to call myself Ntando the Great, because I want to be the greatest and I am going to be the greatest one day — not because I’m cocky, but because that’s what I believe and I want to show the world that anything is possible if you believe in yourself.

“So yes, I would say that I am definitely not someone else. I am who I am – I am Ntando the Great.”

Mahlangu, now brimming with confidence, had to learn how to believe in himself the hard way.

Ntando was born with Fibular hemimelia (FH), a birth defect resulting in a short or missing fibula which hinders leg development. Quite rare, it occurs in only 1 in 40,000 births. Bilateral fibular hemimelia, affecting both legs, is even more rare. For Ntando, FH would mean spending the first 10 years of his life in a wheelchair.

Ntando has come a long way since making his international debut at the 2015 International Wheelchair and Amputee Sport (IWAS) Junior World Games

He attended a mobility clinic and met with physicians to discuss the possibility of wearing prosthetics. He was told that he would require a bilateral through-knee amputation for the prosthetics to fit and function well.

“I was 10 and had never walked before, so when they said there was an option for me to walk and run, I told my family that I wanted the amputation so that could happen.”

He underwent amputation in 2012. After his recovery, he was fitted with prosthetics provided by a charity called Jumping Kids. He took his first step and each day, his walking improved, and his confidence grew. Ntando would happily join neighbourhood soccer matches and discovered how he enjoyed running the field from end to end. Others took notice of his speed and suggested he race competitively.

“Everything changed. It started a new journey for me as I began to walk and be active and then into mainstream schooling and into different sports competitions.”

Ntando says he was subjected to bullying by his peers.

He explained: “It was physical and emotional bullying. You know, you have people who take your stuff and run away. I didn’t have legs at that time, so I couldn’t chase them.

“You start talking to them, saying, ‘No, bring back my stuff.’ Then it becomes verbal bullying, because they start saying things that are hurting you.
“The moment I got my prosthetic legs, I was able to stand up and say, ‘Hey, stop what you’re doing – it’s not right. If you run away, I’m going to catch you.’

“The athletic side, I think, also had to do with the bullying side, where I had to stand up for myself. I had to catch the guy to get my things back.”
At the mercy of bullies, few would have been able to turn the situation on its head and find a silver lining. Mahlangu, however, gained not only athletic prowess, but also mental fortitude and unshakeable self-belief.

“I think it helped me a lot to stand up for myself. That’s what I’m doing right now – I believe that I am the best T61 athlete in the world,” he said.
“You have to say that, you have to believe it – because sometimes, we tend not to say it and when you don’t say it, you can’t believe it. That’s why when people ask me if I’m going for gold, I say: ‘Yes, I am going for gold.'”

Ntando Mahlangu in Tokyo – Photo by Carmen Mandato Getty Images

His motivations have changed though, looking more outward than in the past, adding: “I always give my best when I come to races, but I am dedicating this 200m to my fellow South Africans during these difficult times. I’m going to run for my country – it’s not about me.

“I think that in 2016, I got the silver for myself. I can say that I did that for Ntando Mahlangu. Right now, this is so much bigger than me. On September 3, you want to watch the 200m, because it’s Ntando Mahlangu running for a nation — more than 50 million people. That tells you how much it means to me,” he told ESPN.com’s Leonard Solms on August 26.

As a result of a rule change which moved the former T42 athlete into the new T61 class strictly for double above-knee amputees, Mahlangu will not take part in any event bar the 200m and long jump due to the absence of other sprint races in his class.

“Long jump is an event that I have actually been doing from the beginning, but it’s an event that gave me a lot of injuries, so I stopped doing long jump,” Mahlangu said of his August 28 event.

“Before the classes were split, I had the opportunity to run in two events. There was no need to do long jump because I was running in two events – the 100 and 200. In 2019, they split the class, so now I only have the 200 and the long jump.”

When Mahlangu took it to the top step of the Tokyo podium, it was a crowning moment not only for him, but also for Jumping Kids, the charity that has treated him like family since he received his first prosthetics in 2012, with his supportive parents’ blessing.

“None of the schools in his home province, Mpumalanga, would take him, so he was staying away from family in a disabled school [in Pretoria] that predominantly caters towards mental disability, not physical disability,” Jumping Kids director Michael Stevens told ESPN.

“There were issues around the schooling and the education he would get. We were trying to get him into a mainstream [non-specialist] school and no school would take him.

“The only option we ended up having was if Johan [Snyders, the Jumping Kids founder] essentially fostered Ntando and took him into his home, then he could attend the school in Pretoria that Johan’s children attended.”

Off the back of his performance in Rio, Mahlangu started attending Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool [Affies], a well-respected Afrikaans boy’s high school with a rich sporting history, which had taken note of his athletic achievements.

Having struggled to fit in at primary school, Mahlangu was astonished at how warmly he was welcomed at Affies, saying: “They didn’t even worry if I was disabled or not – they just treated me [like anyone else].

“We have this tradition at the school of being brothers and they saw me as one of their brothers. That tradition plays a big role, because you are coming to the school and you don’t have to educate people or show people [how to act]. They just treat you as who you are.”

While he was at the Paralympics, he was also studying for crucial exams which could play a role in determining his future, with business management studies at university his goal for next year.

“It hasn’t been the easiest job to do, because when I come back from the Paralympics, I have to write my prelims [the second last set of major exams in the South African schooling system],” said Mahlangu of balancing his studies with athletics.

“Then, I have a week, and then I have to go back to school. Then, I have two weeks and I’m writing my final exams. It’s very tough – when I’m at the Paralympics, I have to study.

“If it lets me do what I love, which is running at the top stage, then I would do it over and over again. It has been very difficult with the two, but I am at the place where I can balance both. We know that education comes first, but I try to balance the two.”

With exams, university, and maybe another Paralympics or two to look forward to, as well as his ongoing work with youngsters at Jumping Kids, there is certainly plenty of purpose to Ntando Mahlangu’s incredible life. espn.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *