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ATHLETICS

Sensational Shaun Maswanganyi is eyeing gold for World Championships and Paris Olympics

Sensational Shaun Maswanganyi is eyeing gold for World Championships and Paris Olympics
Shaun Maswanganyi narrowly missed the cut for the 100m finals at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo but intends to do better at the World Championships and the 2024 Olympics. (Photo: Anton Geyser/Gallo Images)

Losing a race became sprinter Shaun Maswanganyi’s main driving force to find success on the track.

Having narrowly missed out on the 100m final of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games (held in 2021), South Africa’s Shaun Maswanganyi has his sights set on a solid showing at next month’s World Athletics Championships to set the tone for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

Maswanganyi was only 20 when he represented South Africa at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Two years later and he’s developed exponentially – on and off the track.

The former St Alban’s College High School student lives in Texas, US, where he’s in his final year of studying economics at the University of Houston while being coached by nine-time Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis.

It’s an exceptional place to be for an athlete whose drive for the sport stems from loathing the feeling of losing more than an immediate affinity for the activity – that came later.

“I just want to be the best in whatever I do and that has led to my success right now,” Maswanganyi told Daily Maverick.

Maswanganyi has been on an upward trajectory since missing the 100m final of the Tokyo Olympic Games by the barest of margins. In 2023 he has run his personal best times in the 100m (9.91s), 200m (19.99s) and 60m (6.56s).

Shaun Maswanganya, eyes gold

Shaun Maswanganyi in action during the semifinal of the mens 100m at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. (Photo: Anton Geyser/Gallo Images)

Reluctant runner

Maswanganyi has his sights set on Olympic medals, but a few years ago his athletic vision was to play cricket or basketball.

That was before a high school athletics coach – former South African long jumper Yaw Fosu-Amoah – dragged him off to the track.

“I wanted to go to St Albans College for cricket. I was going to get a cricket scholarship,” Maswanganyi said.

“Then I realised they play 50 overs. It’s the whole day. I can’t play that. I like the T20 thing, but the 50 overs, I couldn’t do that. So I decided to follow my other passion, which is basketball, and my high school was pretty good at basketball.”

He also played rugby, exploiting his raw speed on the wing for his school.

“I was the top try scorer in my [rugby] team, and I was one of the best players in my team as well in basketball,” he said.

“By the time the end of the year came, when I was 14, in Grade 8, the high school athletics coach was trying to recruit me.”

Maswanganyi was reluctant.

“Then we had this inter-house event where we would compete at school against other guys [at St Alban’s].

“I raced and … broke the school senior record, the open record, at 13.14 seconds. I didn’t even train. It was just natural talent.

“At that point, I wasn’t even really interested in athletics.”

Changing gears

But that all changed when Maswanganyi lost his first race. He was pitted against a South African champion sprinter, Ruben Els, in an age grade one older than he was at the time, during an inter-schools competition.

“I raced and this guy blew the doors off me. He put about four metres on me,” Maswanganyi recalled.

“The first 60 metres I was first. After that he just glided away and he beat me and I remember like the cameraman was going, ‘Yoh!’

“But that race opened my eyes because I was on a bit of a high horse … I went back to my coach and I said I can’t let that happen again. I’m joining the team.

“My coach had a heart-to-heart with me. He was like, ‘Listen, commit to the track programme and I’ll make you national champion in four months’,” he said.

Maswanganyi had no intention of being South African champion for his age group. At the time his sole ambition was to beat Els and never lose in that fashion again.

As hard work and training would have it, Maswanganyi won his first South African title the following year at the under-15 level. That settled the path for him as he trained and sacrificed every school holiday to become the best sprint athlete he could possibly be.

It paid dividends in his matric year as he went on to claim every title he competed in at the South African Schools Athletics high school championships.

His excellence on the track saw him rewarded with a spot in the South African squad for the African U20 Championships for Athletics while still in high school.

He claimed first place in the 200m and placed second in the 100m – at only 18 years old.

Student athlete

The choice between either being a professional sprinter or focusing on furthering his studies was the next big decision for the young athlete. But the savvy sprinter decided to do both to satisfy his long- and short-term goals.

He packed his sprint spikes along with his book bag and moved to the US, where he could be a student athlete.

One reason for not choosing to further his studies in South Africa is the lack of flexibility that universities in the country allow student athletes.

“America has more versatility in the sense that in the off season when I’m just training and not travelling, I can take my hardest classes,” the sprinter said.

“It’s easier for me to focus because I don’t miss much school. And then, when I’m in season, I’ll take my easier classes that I can get away with when I’m missing some school because of travel meets.

“America has the right balance.”

There is also the small matter of one of the best athletes the world has seen, Lewis, heading up the University of Houston’s athletics department.

With the backing of his coach and continuous development and growth from his previous international outings, Maswanganyi believes he is in the right headspace to succeed.

“The way our system is designed, the longer you stay in it, the more you … understand it, the more you learn exactly what to do. When to run fast, how to preserve your body as well, because it’s always a learning thing,” the 22-year-old said. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    What great news for a change – wishing him every success and very pleased he is representing South Africa – hope he returns to inspire other young South Africans with talent.

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    So good to see, don’t stop Shaun.
    You’ll inspire the vast well of untapped talent in our country.

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