How the Two Oceans moulded legendary champion Thulani Sibisi

2015-04-02 12:41

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“How old do you think I am?” Thulani Sibisi flashes a wry smile as he asks, perhaps knowing it’s not easy to guess his age offhand.

His slight build and youthful eyes betray the fact that he’s in his 60s. Visibly flattered by guesses of “45” and “mid-40s”, he cocks his head and reveals: “I’m 61.”

It’s what a lifetime of “total commitment and discipline” has afforded the 1986 Two Oceans Marathon champion.

“I consider myself a disciplinarian,” he says, adding he was good enough to have gone the route of playing professional football, but found that team sports like football don’t accommodate for all-round discipline the same way running does.

It’s no surprise, then, that he was at the helm of the long-distance coaching staff for Team South Africa at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics, a significant event as it was the first South Africa participated in since the apartheid sanctions.

Sibisi’s success story in the running world is well documented. The man who grew up in rural KwaZulu-Natal and was leagues ahead of his peers on the track moved to Johannesburg before he finished school to work full-time as a gardener at the Rupert family home – the same Ruperts who rank so highly on Forbes’ rich list.

He had always known that his aptitude for long-distance running was remarkable, but found the pressures of permanent employment while maintaining a rigorous training regime too difficult to manage.

Knowing that getting to Cape Town by train or bus to run Two Oceans in 1986 would have taken him as long as three days, he phoned Johann Rupert to ask if he might sponsor his plane ticket to the race.

Soon afterwards, he received a business class ticket and a hotel booking in Newlands, near the start of the race. It might have been the cushy run-up to the race that gave him the boost he needed to succeed, but he believes “there are no miracles in long-distance running, only hard work”.

On winning Two Oceans 29 years ago, he says: “It was the one thing that marketed me, and opened many doors for me.”

Doors were opened to the extent where, he claims, he was instrumental in the formation of Athletics South Africa, as well as being one of the founders of the Soweto Marathon which, despite some challenges in the past, is fortunately back on track.

What’s taken up most of his time at this point in his career is not running, coaching or athletics administration, but raising awareness on prostate cancer.

Sibisi was diagnosed with stage three prostate cancer in 2012, and it took six years after his dad died for him to discover it was prostate cancer that had claimed his life.

Sibisi’s advocacy is centred on eradicating the stigma attached to the condition and educating boys and men on detection, prevention and treatment.

“Many people think cancer is just a white thing, so there is a lot of awareness to be created in black communities. In addition, because it affects the private parts, it becomes a sensitive thing for men to be open about,” he says.

In Sibisi’s determination to spread knowledge and educate people about prostate cancer, he is challenging the departments of health and sport and recreation to be part of his awareness drive: “Boys should know more about prostate cancer from an early age.”

Sibisi preaches three pillars to his approach: early detection, a better diet and, most importantly, exercise.

“Too many people eat Chicken Licken and white bread, and then when they start working they buy a comfortable couch and just sit watching TV,” he comments critically on today’s emergent culture.

What are his plans for this year’s Two Oceans? Apart from being an ambassador for the race as one of its “running legends”, he’s running the 10km trail and will then take his place behind the mic for the SABC’s isiZulu commentary during the marathon.

Another boost for Sibisi at this year’s Two Oceans is that Kaya FM sports presenter Mosibudi Whitehead will be running under the Old Mutual More Than Yourself banner, raising funds for the veteran’s cause.

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