From addiction to swimming - how sports saved me


When he lined up for the start of the Discovery Triathlon World Cup in Cape Town last weekend, up-and-coming swimmer Mhlengi Gwala was flushed with gratefulness. Reporter William Molema caught up with him to find out why.

Mhlengi Gwala and Sandile Shange

Mhlengi Gwala, a 26-year-old from Ndwedwe in KwaZulu-Natal and keen triathlete, is grateful for the opportunity to display his athletic talents against the best in the business. But more importantly, he's grateful for life.

"I shouldn't be alive," Mhlengi says, in a somewhat blasť manner that makes it hard to believe him at first. "I should have died a long time ago, my man," he explains. "You see, I was a drug addict, and in 2009 I was admitted to hospital because of sicknesses caused by my addiction."

We are at the Durban King's Park swimming pool, and the irony of Mhlengi's statement is too hard to ignore. Resplendent in a life-guard's vest and with young boys waving excitedly at him as they head to the pool, here is a man tasked with saving lives, talking about how his should have long ended.

Drugs landed me in hospital before I turned to swimming

Yet such are the realities of life for boys in many South African townships: dicing with death is par for the course. Before becoming a lifeguard, Mhlengi was a young boy on a fast track to nowhere. Having left the serene surrounds of rural Ndwedwe for the hustle and bustle of Chesterville as he began his studies at UNISA, he found himself drawn to the wrong crowds.

"I started using drugs and ended up being hooked on Ecstasy. Eventually I got Hepatitis B and I was told my liver was not working. I was close to dying and had to spend time in hospital on drips." Upon his discharge from the hospital, he stopped drinking for a while and even started swimming.

Healthier influences turned my life around

"I only drank on weekends, I loved my beer," he smiles. "But the problem was that there was this guy called Vuyo who beat me in swimming races every Monday, but never during the week. I realised that the drinking was affecting my swimming, and I consciously decided to start hanging around with non-drinkers. That's when I met Sandile."

Sandile Shange is a 36-year-old with massive triathlon experience who'll also be participating at the Discovery Triathlon World Cup next weekend in the Mother City.
With eight full Iron Mans and five Durban Ultras to his name, he turned out to be a fantastic role model for Mhlengi.

My mentors taught me to swim, and life lessons along the way

Mhlengi admits, "The temptation to go back to drinking and my old life of drugs is always there. So it is key for me to hang out with people who will ensure that I don't go back to what I used to do. And to be honest, the support I get from everyone - our coach Glen Gore, Sandile, Prince and Zamu is very good. They all taught me to swim, but more importantly, they are giving me very important life lessons. I am now a permanent lifeguard and I've had some great experiences in triathlons and lifesaving championships."

Last year was a particularly good year for Mhlengi as he finished fourth in his age category of the SA Championships, and even competed in the World Championships in the Netherlands. He also competed in last year's Discovery Triathlon World Cup.

"It was an amazing experience," he beams. "I saw a competition on Facebook asking people to write a story about their friend, and I shared mine and Sandile's. We won and flew to Cape Town for what turned out to be a very good holiday. The people at Discovery put us up at the Southern Sun hotel and we were supposed to check out a day after the event but they allowed us to stay an extra day. And then we got a call from them telling us that we are going back again this year. I'm very excited."

Read more about how Mhlengi and Sandile are inspiring other youngsters in townships to engage in sports and become triathletes themselves.


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