Is it possible that somewhere in a small tribal village in Africa a new world champion athlete could be found? Not likely, even impossible! Not so, read on!
As Zinzi Mandla stood on the podium in the athletics stadium in London, the South African National Anthem ushered in the raising of the flags where the South African flag enjoyed centre position above the Jamaican and USA flags. Her chin began to quiver and then the tears streamed down her cheeks. The gold medal that hung around her neck seemed unreal. She felt like pinching herself to see if this was real and not just a dream.
A little less than two year ago, she had never travelled further than the town of Umtata, 120 km from her village on the Wild Coast of the Transkei in South Africa. Now she was standing before the thousands of athletics fans in the London Stadium. She had been told that millions of people around the world would be watching on television. Could this really be happening?
Growing up in the rural village at Mbotyi near the Mateku River, Zinzi had always known that she could run fast. When she and brothers played soccer in the veldt near their school, she could get to the tennis ball that they used, faster than anyone else. Even older and bigger boys could not outrun her when they raced on the sand along the beach, just for the fun of it. In the village her nick name was “Itwazi” which loosely translated from Xhosa means “fast runner". Running seemed to be in her blood. When she was in full flight it seemed to her as if she was close to flying.
The idea of competing in an athletic event never really came into her mind. Her school did not offer sporting activities. Daily she helped her Mother collect wood from the coastal forest, carrying large bundles on her head. Her job was also to fetch water from the river in the valley below. Her dream, however, was to complete her 12th grade and then enroll for a teaching diploma at the University in Umtata. She worried about how she would be able to do that because her Dad had passed away eight years ago. She and her Mother and brothers survived by growing some vegetables and keeping a few fowls and pigs on the small plot they lived on in the village.
A monthly grant from the Government to her Mother provided enough money to buy some mielie (maize) meal, paraffin and sugar on their twice monthly trip to the nearby town of Port St Johns. It was on one of those trips that she had come across an athletic meeting in the town. Organized by athletics South Africa, the idea was to go into rural areas and possibly discover new athletic talent. After all, so many African countries had produced great athletes, and with running being such a pure activity, there may just be some future world champions out there or so the theory went! Everyone in the area could compete in the so called “Street Meetings.” The organizers then earmarked anyone with obvious talent for possible development programmes.
When Edward Dlamini saw Zinzi win the hundred meters race in the main road of Port St Johns he immediately knew that they had struck gold. She glided over the dusty ground and won by more than 15 meters. It was as if she only touched the ground a couple of times. “Poetry in motion,” he remembered the words of his own coach at Pretoria University, as he described a great runner in the South African team.
Edward had earned his South African colours and competed in the Olympic Gamesin Los Angeles in 1984. He made the finals of the 800 meters where he finished 6th. He had been discovered on the mines in Welkom in the Free State Province of South Africa. Now he worked for S.A. Athletics as a development officer in the Eastern Cape. He was based in Port Elizabeth and assisted with coaching of the students in the athletic programme there.
After Zinzi was “discovered” by Edward, things had happened fast. The first athletics meeting in Umtata left everyone except Janet breathless as she broke a long standing Border record. Where did this young runner come from? What club did she run for? Who was her coach? The South African Junior Championships at the Greenpoint Stadium in Cape Town in February gave her a first medal. The media were astounded and the excitement in athletics circles was huge. Everyone wanted a piece and the offers from top schools came fast and furious. Edward tried to slow things down but to no avail. Next year was the 2012 Olympics in London. Could this young athlete, who with almost no training had broken the SA Junior record for the 100m in only her third meeting, be in contention? Surely not!
ProfessorTim Nokes at the high performance centre in Cape Town tested Zinzi and his eyes glistened when he gave the report to Edward. "She is as close to a perfect running machine as I have ever seen. Look after her carefully" he told Edward,. "everyone is going to try and own her in this modern money crazy world. She is a diamond waiting to just be polished a bit"..
Zinzi’s Mom was concerned about her studies. She sat outside her hut in long discussions with Edward who tried to assure her that everything would work out. A compromise was reached. Zinzi would first write her exams at the end of the year and then they would take it from there. Meanwhile she could spend some time over weekends training with the University team in Umtata. She would also be allowed to compete in some competitions during the year. Edward was impressed by this Xhosa woman and her daughter who were being challenged in ways far beyond the experience of anyone in their village. Zinzi’s Mom also liked this man who seemed trustworthy, and so a working relationship started to develop.
Edward continued with his “Street Meetings” in rural areas, hoping to find more talent, but his focus was now on training and bringing along this young girl with the enormous natural talent. A carefully devised daily programme with light weights and running exercises was put into place. Edward had the experience to know that she needed to be taken along slowly but steadily.
To his amazement Zinzi won the South African Championships early in 2012 in a time that made even international athletics circles take note. Hearing about this new amazing talent some American Universities started to make enquiries. At home Zinzi still helped to fetch water, carrying the heavy container on her head from the river in the valley. She studied hard at the local Secondary School where she had become a bit of a hero. At night she studied in her side of the hut with a paraffin lamp, sharing the light and small table with two of her brothers.
The fuss that was being made amused her but she was also pleased by the attention. Running to her came so easily and winning was something she accepted naturally. Edward, with his long experience in the sport, knew that it was not going to always be so easy. What would happen when she lost? What is she got injured or could simply not handle the pressure? He had seen it happen before. At the same time he had never seen such natural talent. How glad he was that Zinzi had come to town on the day he had arranged the “Street Meeting” in Port St Johns.
New experiences for Zinzi followed each other at unbelievable speed. First there was a flight from East London to Johannesburg, then staying in a hotel, competing in Pretoria at the University Stadium, writing her prelims and final exams, receiving her successful results, running an Olympic qualifying time. It all happened so fast!
Then came the exciting news which Edward personally brought to the village: Zinzi had been selected to represent South Africa in London! The flight from East London to Johannesburg and then on to London; the arrival at the Olympic Village was exciting and frightening. Here she saw the legends of women sprinting, training and yet somehow she did not feel intimidated. Then the first round and semi-finals against all these women, who seemed so much more experienced, because they were. Was she dreaming or was this real?
As Zinzi looked up, she saw through her tears, the colorful new South African flags being waved in the stands and heard the roar of the crowd. Standing on the podium she could see Edward waving the South African flag with a smile on his face as bright as the Olympic Torch! The South African Anthem, “Inkosi, Sikilele Africa” was playing, and it seemed as if thousands of cameras were clicking - and they were! Zinzi Mandla, Olympic Champion, an impossible fairy tale that came true!
“Igora-letwazi!” (Victory - the fast one)
Johan Smulders (author) from East London, South Africa on August 09, 2012:
I am sure there are others out there in rural Africa that need discovering. The question is who will go and find them!
Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on August 08, 2012:
Voted up and awesome. May this young woman go far. Her innocense will help guide her along, and hopefully, she won't lose that too soon. Bravo!