SA triathlete on road to recovery after chainsaw attack

Mhlengi Gwala. (Image via MRP Foundation)
Mhlengi Gwala. (Image via MRP Foundation)

Johannesburg - The story of recovering triathlete Mhlengi Gwala is a remarkable one that can get movie makers jumping up and down with excitement.

He beat drugs as a youngster and recently survived a career-threatening chainsaw attack that was so horrific it sent shock waves through the country.

Gwala (27) participated briefly in the 27-day Mandela Day Charity Challenge on Robben Island, which is 4 666.4km long and is aimed at raising funds for young people in need.

He joined the athletes four months after the brutal attack, during which he almost lost his legs.

In March, South Africans woke up to the shocking news that the triathlete had been attacked by three men in the bushes close to the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College campus. They allegedly attempted to chop off his legs with a chainsaw.

Gwala managed to drag himself to safety and was helped by security guard Themba Gumede.

A full recovery for Gwala is expected to take at least two years because of nerve damage, according to Team SA’s Olympic doctor Kevin Shubban.

After his attack he made headlines and the public donated about R600 000 for his medical bills.

“Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu is a Zulu phrase that translates to a person is a person through/because of (other) people,” Gwala said.

“What some people I don’t even know did for me has taught me not to be selfish. That is one of the reasons I participated in the charity challenge even though I am not yet fully recovered.”

But the spirited Chesterville-based triathlete said he had "not rushed his return".

“But I felt it was necessary to go back to training so I can move forward - and I am getting there.”

After missing the SA Triathlon Championships in Bloemfontein, which took place shortly after his attack, he said he would participate in the MRP Foundation challenge in December. This is a gruelling 606km ride from Johannesburg to Durban.

“The race helps raise funds and awareness for youth empowerment programmes, and for those who passed matric to get retailing skills to help them get jobs.”

Gwala grew up in the village of Ndwedwe where he herded goats.

“I grew up in the farm looking after goats and also some cattle.”

He enrolled at UNISA for a tourism degree in 2008, but could not finish as he dropped out because of alcohol and drug abuse.

“I stayed in hospital for two weeks,” he said.

In 2010, he worked as a merchandiser in a retailing store.

His future changed when he started swimming.

“When I started swimming, I slowly stopped drinking, but it was in 2013 when I quit for good, and I won my first gold at the SA Championships long beach run and did it again in 2015.”

He has competed in the 2015 Chicago International Triathlon Union and Aquathlon World Championship, and in the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Rotterdam last year.

Through his journey, he was helped by his former coach Glen Gore, his current coach Warrick Mac Nicol and biokineticist Jaryd Rudolph.

Despite all the hardships, the triathlete still hopes to compete in international events and continue to make a name for himself.

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