- Well-known amputee-athlete Xolani Luvuno's sudden death shocked South Africans on Tuesday, but his mentor, Hein Venter, highlighted his inspiring story of redemption.
- Luvuno famously went from beggar to Comrades finisher following Venter's offer to take him under his wing back in 2016.
- Venter hailed his protege and "son" as an "angel that touched many lives" and could "bake cakes from crumbs".
A tearful Hein Venter hailed well-known athlete Xolani Luvuno, an amputee, as an "absolute angel who touched so many lives" after posting on social media late on Monday that he died.
The genial mentor of the inspirational runner confirmed the news to Sport24 on Tuesday morning.
Venter didn't wish to elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Luvuno's death, merely stating that it was a "tragic way for a life full of smiles and gratitude to end".
Instead, the Pretoria businessman focused on a heartwarming story of redemption, one that culminated in Luvuno finishing the 2018 Comrades Marathon through a special arrangement before running 82km of the following year's edition despite not being granted entry for the race.
It was a far cry from the life he had as a beggar sleeping under a bridge in Sunnyside that he shared with up to 30 other people on certain nights.
Luvuno grew up in the Eastern Cape and then in Durban, where he became gripped by a drug addiction that also led to a life of crime, not all of it non-violent.
He was eventually sentenced to five years in prison after being caught red-handed by the police during a house robbery.
Upon his release, Luvuno became concerned about his right knee being swollen up, which led to a diagnosis of bone cancer and the agonising decision - made by himself - to have his lower leg amputated.
Unable to remain a self-proclaimed "bully", he resorted to handouts.
One day, in 2016, Venter - who had given some money to Luvuno on a few occasions on his way to his perfume business - decided to listen to his story and was convinced he needed to take him under his wing.
The rest is history as Luvuno not only kicked his habit, but got a job at Venter's company and began his short, spectacular career in running.
"The two things that will always stay with me is how Xolani was friendly to others, a man who wanted to show others that you can love life," said Venter.
"But I'll always be in awe of how he showed his gratitude. He was someone who was so appreciative of anything you'd do for him and went out of his way to show you what he had done with whatever was afforded to him."
The most illuminating example of that was when Luvuno attended the 2016 Comrades.
Venter had decided that having his colleagues travel down for the world famous ultramarathon and witnessing the determination and perseverance of the thousands of athletes would be a fitting team-building exercise.
Luvuno developed a burning desire to compete too.
Starting small, he decided to race with his crutches because his prosthesis was developing sores on his stump - a legacy of his amputation not being done correctly - and by 2017 had completed a 10k, half-marathon and marathon as he steadily built a head of steam towards his Comrades dream.
But concessions needed to be made.
Luvuno would never reach the official cut-off time for the race, so the organisers allowed him to start five hours before the official starting time.
Amazingly, he reached the theatre that is the Comrades' final stretch a full 90 minutes before the cut-off, crossing the line in an astonishing 15 hours and 30 minutes.
South Africans were enthralled by this feat of endurance.
In 2019, he and Venter, an avid athlete himself, would go viral as the unlikely duo to complete the full Ironman in Port Elizabeth and, denied permission to enter, determinedly ran the race without his support vehicles, stopping at the final 5km mark to catch a swoop car.
He returned for another Ironman last year before forfeiting during the swimming section because he'd developed hypothermia, which landed him in hospital.
Venter welled up when asked about his own emotions when competing alongside his protege.
"I really pushed him hard sometimes," he said.
"He was just so dedicated and determined. It was awesome how he could bake a cake from mere crumbs.
"There was never a complaint, Xolani would just carry on. It was just such a privilege to witness that part of his journey."
Despite Luvuno's ultimately sad demise, the sheer volume of tributes that rolled in for him in such a short space of time attests to the legacy of inspiring humanity.
He would donate his incentive bonus from for the Comrades to a school for children with disabilities and was a regular motivational speaker.
"That's who Xolani was. He loved life and lived for other people. I'm so grateful when I read all the wonderful stories from other people about him. He touched lives," said Venter.
"I was just so blessed to be part of it. He really was such an inspiration to so many."