Manyonga: I was so close to death

Rio de Janeiro - South Africa's Olympic silver medallist and latest hero, Luvo Manyonga, was close to dying before intervention from SASCOC president Gideon Sam got his life back on track. 

Manyonga finished second in the men's long jump at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday night (Sunday morning, SA time) and his touching story has been spreading like wildfire ever since. 

Now 25, Manyonga was banned for 18 months back in 2012 when traces of methamphetamine (tik) were found in his system. 

Just a couple of months before that ban was made public, Sam had gone to visit Manyonga in his home township of Mbekweni just outside Paarl. 

"The whole thing started by me looking for a world champion in long jump. And I started asking questions ... I said 'we have a world champion here. Where is Luvo?', Sam told Sport24 at the Olympic athletes village on Sunday.

Sam's answer was that he needed to locate Manyonga's coach, Mario Smith. 

Upon doing so, and making a trip to Stellenbosch, Sam learned that discipline was an issue for Manyonga and that Smith was struggling to get the undoubted talent to practice regularly. 

Sam demanded a meeting with Manyonga the next day, which Smith set up.

"By 11:00 he had not pitched. He was supposed to be at Mario's office at 09:00," Sam recalls. 

"He didn't know me, but having been a school teacher all my life and having been a lecturer at the university I knew how to deal with young people.

"I put him on the mat and told him that he would never do this to me again."

Sam had harsh words for Manyonga that day, questioning his professionalism, work ethic and common decency. 

"I think he immediately got it into his mind ... maybe he never had that kind of fatherly figure," Sam said.

Sam told Manyonga that it was time to shape up; to get some discipline back into his life and to give himself a chance to succeed. 

The plan was for Sam to return the following month to meet with Manyonga's parents to start discussing how to get him on the right track. 

But it was soon after that initial meeting, and before Sam had returned to Mbekweni, that the news broke of Manyonga's ban. 

Sam says that he did not notice any signs of drug use during that first meeting with Manyonga. 

"It was more a question of discipline," he said. 

Sam, true to his word, returned to Mbekweni a month or so later despite the ban throwing massive doubt over his desire to turn Manyonga into a champion. 

"I had faith in him," said Sam.

"I went up to Stellenbosch and told him I wanted to see his parents, but he said it wasn't a good time. He said his father had not been around in some time."

Instead, Manyonga requested that the meeting take place at a nearby sports stadium. 

"I told him I was going to back him," said Sam.

"Give it to him ... he really bought into this whole thing."

Manyonga was moved to the High Performance Centre (HPC) in Pretoria and hasn't looked back since then, but it could have ended so differently.

Sam, looking for his champion, was unaware at the time that he was in fact saving Manyonga's life.

"2012 was a time in my life when I thought it was over. Mr. Sam picked me up from nowhere," Manyonga said.

"Every time I wake up I always think about where I would be if I didn't take that path ... I would be living hell.

"You won't believe ... I was dead. Dead, dead, dead. 

"I'm so proud of whatever has happened in my life and the people who supported me to get me where I am today.

"I was so close to death."

As if the story wasn't heart-wrenching enough, Manyonga has also had to deal with another tragedy. 

Smith, his first coach, was killed in a car crash in 2014. 

"His spirit is with me all the time," said South Africa's newest superstar.

Lloyd Burnard is Sport24's correspondent in Rio de Janeiro for the duration of the 2016 Olympics ...

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