mbanjwa eyes new splashes

Many black people can't swim, let alone paddle, so, a black person winning a canoeing marathon is somehow unthinkable.

Many black people can't swim, let alone paddle, so, a black person winning a canoeing marathon is somehow unthinkable.

But with zest, courage and determination, unknown Michael Mbanjwa made it look as though he was born to paddle.

Sowetan's Canaan Mdletshe interviewed the 24-year-old Mkhamba- thini-born athlete after his greatest achievement of becoming the first ever black paddler to win the 57-year-old Hansa-Powerade Dusi Marathon.

Canaan Mdletshe (CM): You have done the country proud with your achievement and people are still curious to know who this Michael Mbanjwa is.

Micheal Mbanjwa (MM): I was born and grew up in a valley called Mkhambathini, near the popular Valley of a Thousand Hills. I attended Phangindawo Primary and moved on to Masijabule High School.

CM: Were you involved in any sporting activities at school or you had to look after your father's livestock like many of us who grew up in the rural areas and valleys?

MM: I excelled in athletics and was a good soccer player, like many boys of my age. Remember, we had limited sporting codes that we could take part in, but soccer was my passion.

CM: If soccer was your passion, how come you ended up doing what you are doing today?

MM: Around 1998/99; we used to see these white people paddling past my home in Nagle Dam.

We would just stand there and watch, but it never crossed my mind that someday I would be doing the same thing.

CM: But you did?

MM: Yes, one day, the late Robert Lembethe, who was the only black paddler, said if we wanted to continue watching the paddlers, we would have to pay or we must join.

Anyhow, we had grown to love what they were doing and remembered that as young boys we wanted to swim in the dam anyway, and that's how I joined with the other boys.

CM: Canoes and paddling, how difficult was it for you, I mean, being a black boy who can only swim in a shallow dam, were you not scared that you might drown or something?

MM: Lembethe took us through the ins and outs of paddling, but first he had to teach us to swing properly because when you are paddling, anything can happen and if you can't swim, you might drown. So he took us through all the steps. I enjoyed what I was doing and I can say that it grew inside me, because it is important to love and enjoy what you are doing.

CM: When was your first canoe marathon?

MM: Ten years ago when Lembethe was still alive. We (with Lovedale Zondi) battled then, because we were still learning. Years of hard training have finally paid dividends, and Lembethe always told us to be patient and work hard. He was so determined to see us excelling and I am over the moon today that his years of hard work are bearing fruit.

CM: How do you see the future of canoeing within the black communities, especially after your great achievement this year?

MM: The future looks bright. There's enormous talent out there and young people are flocking to the clubs. In 2003, after completing my matric, there were great strides in terms of canoeing development and there's a white guy who asked me to come to Benoni because they had opened a development club there and they needed a black coach to take over, so that's how I ended up in the Ekurhuleni Canoe Club. We have one club in Soweto that is abuzz with young people. And in my village, every young person wants to paddle and parents are encouraging their children to join and it's amazing, especially after my achievement.

CM: You pocketed R44000 after the victory, how do you feel and who do you attribute your success to?

MM: The legendary Lembethe. He wanted us to do well and I know he is proud of my achievement. Also, hard work and more hard work.

You have to train hard to be in good shape. You need to fully concentrate on what you are doing. Right now my permanent job is canoeing because you can't mix it with something else.

CM: Your message to the youth in general and your future plans.

MM: Explore different sporting codes because you will never know where your future is. And they should join canoeing because they also teach you how to swim, which in a way can save lives. Personally, I want to win next year's K1 Marathon.