From nyaope boy to national hero

2018-06-17 12:19
Xolani Luvuno is basking in the glory of finishing the Comrades Marathon. PHOTO: TEBOGO LETSIE

Xolani Luvuno is basking in the glory of finishing the Comrades Marathon. PHOTO: TEBOGO LETSIE

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2018-06-15 12:21

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It wasn’t that long ago that Xolani Luvuno used to get high on nyaope. Today, he’s high on life.

Two years after conquering his drug habit, the 34-year-old amputee is fresh from conquering the ultimate race of them all, the Comrades Marathon, and, with it, he won the nation’s heart.

On Sunday, Luvuno made history when he completed the 90km marathon on crutches and only one leg. He received a hero’s welcome when he entered the Moses Mabhida Stadium after 15 hours and 50 minutes on the road.

“I cried tears of joy,” Luvuno said this week.

He didn’t expect the kind of reception he received and he’s enjoying every moment of his new-found fame.

Many South Africans have been inspired by his story and have vowed to follow his lead – if he can do it, so can we, they say. But it takes more than just saying it. It takes a whole lot of sweat and sacrifice to finish the Comrades and Luvuno is so fit that, while most of the runners are still suffering from Comrades pain – sore feet and body aches – he feels no discomfort.

Meeting with City Press in Irene outside Pretoria, the diminutive, talkative man in a tracksuit confessed that the journey to the finish line had not been an easy one, and he had to change his friends and lifestyle to get to where he is now.

Three years ago, Luvuno was just another beggar on the streets of Pretoria, using nyaope to cope with his life.

Luvuno says he often used to see former Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius passing the corner where he begged near the Brooklyn Mall.

“When I saw him, I wished I could be like him one day ... but I didn’t give it too much thought as it was wishful thinking.”

Then everything changed in 2016 when a good Samaritan called Hein Venter offered him a piece job at his perfume factory, and Luvuno grabbed the opportunity.

But Venter does not want to take any of the glory for turning Luvuno’s life around, and says the runner did it himself.

“Luvuno is such a remarkable person and an example of how to grab your chances in life. Your future is not defined by your past, but by the present. We should not condemn people because of their past,” Venter says.

“He has inspired a nation with his courage. His achievement is just what South Africa needs to move forward in unity.”

Luvuno’s not having any of it.

“I owe everything to Hein. To me, he is my father, my coach and my everything. I had given up on life because it is difficult to get a job for someone with one leg and no
education.

“He asked me what I wanted and I told him I needed a job. At first, I didn’t tell him the truth about the drugs, but he eventually found out.”

Luvuno talks frankly when he says that he used to be a bully back home in East London – before he lost his leg due to bone cancer about 10 years ago.

But what I really want to know is how the running started.

It was a coincidence that he found himself surrounded by athletes at his work place as his colleagues ran with the Sunbird Striders.

“I had to do something to keep myself busy on weekends so that I didn’t fall back on nyaope and alcohol. I would wake up and go training to tire myself out and would be able to sleep. I told myself that, if I went back to nyaope, I would lose my job and everything and end up back on the streets. I had to ask myself if that was what I really wanted and the answer was a big ‘No’. Fortunately, I had a good support structure at work and Hein has always been there for me.”

It started with a 5km run, which was hard at the time.

“Now I don’t feel it – even 10km is a fun walk for me. I don’t regard myself as disabled. My group thought I was joking when I said I would do 21km with them one day and I haven’t looked back.”

His finished his first marathon in seven hours last year. He did the same 42km in five hours this year.

The Comrades Marathon, though, is a monster in a different league.

“Even though the final 9km were hard, I told myself I would not quit. The more you feel the pain, the stronger you become and you push harder. I felt like I was possessed ... I was determined to make history.”

Luvuno has vowed to return to the race to improve his time next year.

Even though he did not receive a medal, it wasn’t about medals for him – it was about achieving a personal goal.

“I want to make up for the time I have wasted on the streets and doing drugs. I also want to send a message to others that nothing is impossible.”

He is setting his sights on next year’s Ironman Triathlon – which requires a daunting 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42km run.

And Luvuno has no doubt that he will complete it because, since he went clean, he has felt like a newborn who is up to any task life throws at him.

“When you do nyaope, it’s like you are in prison and it is not easy to get out. You are always a slave. I am free now.”

The only thing he drinks these days is a red cappuccino. But he confessed that he was still an addict.

“Except I am now addicted to running,” he chuckles.

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