Gymnastics champ's inspiring story

By Drum Digital
03 November 2010

SHE has speed, skill and a body as bendable as a piece of plasticine, and nothing can beat her courage, determination and strength of spirit. Jennifer Khwela has proved that you can get what you want if you have the right attitude and the willingness to go the extra mile, no matter how many curveballs life may toss your way.

The tiny 18-year-old gymnast – who at 1,45 m is no taller than a 10-year-old – enthralled millions of South Africans when she won a silver medal at the recent Commonwealth Games in India. Jennifer was the only black able-bodied athlete to win a medal at the Games and became the first South African gymnast ever to win a silver medal in the competition’s history.And when she stood on the podium in Delhi, India, and accepted her medal for coming second in the vault final, the smile on her face said it all. She was delighted – and so were the rest of us. But as the hype surrounding the medal win died down, the extraordinary story of the young girl’s life began to emerge – a story that is nothing short of inspirational.

Jennifer’s challenges began the day she was born as she was premature and arrived several weeks too early. Nevertheless, she was discharged after a few days and S welcomed by her loving family in their modest Umbilo, Durban, home.

Shortly afterwards, however, she started struggling to breathe and her family rushed her back to hospital. Doctors discovered her lungs were underdeveloped as a result of her premature birth and she was not getting enough oxygen to her brain.

It was touch and go for a while but Jennifer pulled through and proved she was a little fighter. She survived – although she was left with asthma and mild brain damage which would manifest itself in learning difficulties as she grew older.

But Jennifer’s hardships were the last thing on her mind as she took on the best the Commonwealth had to offer in Delhi last month. In addition to her silver medal she came sixth in the beam final and has great memories of the Games.

“I met a lot of famous athletes there,” she says with a radiant smile that rarely seems to leave her face. “I’m happy and proud that I was able to make my country proud. When I returned, the airport in Durban was full of fans, family, friends and people from the media.”

Jennifer is no stranger to winning, though. The lounge in her family’s threebedroom home is filled with trophies and medals the star gymnast has brought home.

In March, for instance, she scooped gold in vault (her favourite apparatus) and bronze in beam at the 2010 International Gymnastics Federation (FIG – Federation Internationale Gymnastique) Artistic Gymnastics World Cup in Doha, Qatar.

She is now sixth in the FIG world vaulting rankings and creeping steadily up to the top of the ladder.

Gymnastics has given her a strong physique and she’s often asked why she “looks so strong”. “I spend most of my time in the gym,” she explains. “But at the Commonwealth Games no one asked me why I look the way I do,” she grins. “Everyone was like me. They all had muscles.”

JENNIFER’S love affair with gymnastics started when she was nine years old and watched the 2000 Sydney Olympics on TV. There and then she knew that was what she wanted to do.

Fortunately gymnastics was on offer at her school, Carrington Heights Primary in Durban, and she took to the sport like the proverbial duck to water. A year later talent scouts came looking around and Jennifer stood out from the group of young gymnasts.

“There was something special about her,” recalls Gail Adamson, who owns Thekwini Gymnastics Academy in Durban. “I saw that she had potential. I recruited 16 girls and 10 boys during that session in 2001 but one by one they left after the hard work began.

Read the full article in DRUM of 11 November 2010

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