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Age is just a number for Paralympian Zanele Situ as she eyes a fifth medal at her sixth Games

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - AUGUST 31: Zanele Situ of the SA Paralympic team during the 2016 Rio Paralympics Team SA Farewell at OR Tambo International Airport on August 31, 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

The determined Paralympian says the Covid-19 lockdown has been very hard on athletes.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The door to her room is wide open and the kettle on the table in the middle of it is still warm. She picks up her mask and puts it on and checks to see that she has her room key with her.

She has a purple piece of paper in her hand, having written seven lines of motivation that she wants to take to the Team SA medical room one floor below.

Zanele Situ may not be a household name in South African sport, but she should be. Then again, that’s true of many Paralympic athletes who are now occupying the same rooms and sharing the same Olympic village experiences that their able-bodied counterparts did just a few short weeks ago.

When she was 11, Situ’s parents took her to hospital as she was always weak, fatigued and was struggling to walk. She had a damaged spinal cord. She spent three years in hospital where the doctors declared: “You’ll never walk again.”

Situ is now 50, the oldest member of the 34-strong Team SA Paralympic squad. This is her sixth Paralympic Games and she’s a four-time medallist – two golds in the javelin in 2000 and 2004, silver in the discus in 2000 and bronze in the javelin in 2016.

She was the first black South African to win Paralympic gold and is a two-time world javelin champion. At the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, she was handed the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, one of only two South Africans to receive the honour; Natalie du Toit receiving it in 2008.

On that purple piece of paper, Zitu had written:

  • Be your own friend
  • Associate with positive people
  • Set personal goals
  • Maintain self-discipline
  • Maintain a positive attitude
  • Work hard
  • Ignore things that you can’t control

Seven short, powerful life lessons from the gogo of South African Paralympians. It will go up in the medical room alongside those from other members of Team SA. 

When the going is tough

Situ doesn’t need reminding that she’s 50, having been born into a very different South Africa, in Kokstad in 1970.

“I don’t do birthdays, but my friends had a little birthday [celebration] for me on my 50th. It was in January this year, during Covid lockdown. But age is just a number.

“I don’t feel 50. After these Games I will go back to Stellenbosch and train for what happens next. I don’t feel any difference with age. As long as you carry on, you feel strong, you don’t feel old.

“It’s something I have always done, every day. But…” There’s a long pause. “The Covid lockdowns haven’t made things easy. Lockdown means that the body takes time to awaken again and getting back to this stage has been tough.”

South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown has been in effect for more than 500 days. The end is not yet in sight and the country is still on Level 3.

Many athletes at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where the squad took home three medals, spoke about how lockdown had affected their preparations. Lack of training camps, lack of competition, lack of travel, geographical remoteness, loadshedding and closure of facilities all form part of the narrative that the naysayers refuse to see when criticising South Africa’s medals tally.

The same restrictions apply to the Paralympians.

“The Covid lockdown and pandemic have been more than bad,” says Situ. “When lockdown happened in March last year, no one thought we’d get to September this year and still be in lockdown. We’ve had to sacrifice a lot. Covid is a bad thing.

“Through all that, we have tried to do our best to train. It hasn’t been easy because training has been like a stop-and-go. One day things are open, the next day closed.

“You train one day and, the next, the facilities are shut. It has not been a nice way to prepare this year, but out of that we did try to find a way to be here. And here we are.”

Expectations

Situ experienced a 12-year medal drought between her 2004 javelin gold in Athens and the bronze at Rio 2016.

It’s not inconceivable that she will add to that tally in Tokyo, given that she qualified for the F54 class in Pretoria in June this year with a throw that left her fourth in the rankings.

Yet she won’t be drawn into any predictions: “I am expecting the team to do well as a whole. We have summer but it’s not like summer here, and although the hottest part of the season has passed, it’s still uncomfortable,” she says.

“I just want to play my part to help people back home to forget about Covid, even if it’s just for a moment. Here in Tokyo, though, we must just focus on what we came to do and try not to think about Covid.”

Covid-19, however, has become a way of life and it’s impossible to ignore.

Like the Olympians a few weeks before them, the Paralympians are staying in a Covid-19 bubble in the athletes’ village, with daily testing and travel restricted to the buses that take athletes and officials to training and competition venues.

Covid-19 cases have surged in Tokyo, which is normally a vibrant city but now one that is in a state of emergency until 12 September.

Afraid of the virus

Situ admits she is “scared” of Covid-19.

“I’m happy to have qualified for Tokyo and glad that the Games are going on because it gives us all hope. But, it has been very difficult and we weren’t sure for long periods whether they were going to take place or not.

“And qualifying was difficult, especially being in lockdown Levels 3 to 5 for so long.

“I’m happy to be on the safe side of Covid for now. If you get Covid it means your Games are over and, even before coming here, it was like that. It has been a threat hanging over our heads now since March last year.”

It might all be part of the new normal but some things still take time to adjust to.

“Having to wear the mask everywhere you go here isn’t easy. You have got to tell yourself not to forget. It’s a really different Games, that’s for sure,” Situ says.

“You have to learn to live with wearing a mask. Every time you leave the room, it’s you and the mask. Even in this very hot weather, you still have the mask. You only take it off when eating, competing and sleeping. You have to try to get used to it.”

Situ’s seventh life lesson resonates mostly with the younger athletes in the squad: Ignore things that you can’t control.

“I would like to say to the younger generation who are competing in Tokyo… If you can, you must be yourself. Keep the routine and steps you normally take, do the same things when you’re here that got you here.

“People around you might have different ways of doing things. Don’t copy them. Ignore things you’re not used to. Stay in your lane. You can’t control everything.”

As for herself, she says: “I’m not here because I’m old. I’m an athlete, like everybody else. I’m not part of the old-age squad. I’m here to compete. When you’re an athlete you mustn’t worry about age.” DM168

 Gary Lemke is in Tokyo as chief writer for Team SA.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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