Triathlete finds silver lining in gruesome handsaw attack
Mhlengi Gwala is back on his bike, going stronger and harder - and determined to pay lobola for his fiancee
SA triathlete Mhlengi Gwala, who was brutally attacked by three handsaw-wielding criminals while training in 2018, has not allowed the ordeal to derail his career goals. The 27-year-old from Chesterville was hauled into a bushy area near the University of KwaZulu-Natal‚ where the men allegedly tried to hack off his leg. The injury effectively put paid to a potentially promising career as an able-bodied athlete. But Gwala has exceeded expectations with a remarkable recovery, cycling from Johannesburg to Durban just nine months after the life-changing incident. While Gwala is still on the mend, he is tackling the 2019 Discovery Triathlon World Cup in Cape Town this weekend. He tells Times Select how the attack ironically opened more doors for him.
How have you been dealing with the trauma of what happened?
I told myself, there’s nothing I can do besides focus on my sports. I have to forgive, because I’ve got two lovely daughters. One is three and one is seven. They always want to play, so if I’m down they have nobody to play with. I try to think about them, so I can always have smiles for them. I don’t know the people who hurt me, so who can I even be angry with? It would be stupid. So I forgive. I can’t forget – but when I remember I don’t let myself get upset or afraid. Everything I think about has to work towards my progress. I knew if I just focused on my recovery, I can get there fast. So that’s where I am today.
How has your medical and rehab team helped you?
I have a biokineticist. He’s been by my side, helping me work harder. I can see the progress from that. Dr Kevin Subban, a sports doctor, is always checking on me and making sure I’m strong. I go to physiotherapy, which makes sure my muscles are fine. Dr O’Sharran Singh, my plastic surgeon, did a very good job to connect my nerves, muscles and tendons. I have such a good team supporting me.
What lessons have you learnt from this experience?
A big lesson I learnt after my accident was from all the support I received. Everybody – black, white, yellow, blue, men and women, friends, even strangers – they supported me. I felt like the whole world was together and helping me, praying for me. Because of my experience and seeing how everybody helped me, I knew I would also have to help others with what I have.
In 2017, SA athletes swept the podium in the men’s elite race at the Discovery Triathlon World Cup. What do you anticipate for the 2019 event?
Yes, that year SA got first, second and third places with the men’s elite; we have so many great triathletes. I’m looking forward to seeing that happen again this year. My first time at the Discovery Triathlon was in 2016. It was my first trip to Cape Town and I was just over the moon. This year ... it’s my first international event since the incident. It’s going to be hard, but I’m going to try.
What’s next for you in your journey?
Since the incident I have qualified as a para-cyclist. I don’t know what to say ... God does things in his way. This incident actually opened so many doors for me, doors that were shut before. It changed the way I think, the way I look at people. I’ve learnt a lot from it. I’m hoping to qualify for the Paralympics next year. That depends on my legs. But I want to keep earning points so I can compete internationally and make my country proud. I also want to finish paying the lobola for my fiancee, I still owe a few cows.