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ATHLETICS

Ntando Mahlangu runs to hear the wind whistling past his ears – and to try to win more Paralympics medals

Ntando Mahlangu runs to hear the wind whistling past his ears – and to try to win more Paralympics medals
Ntando Mahlangu won two gold medals at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. (Photo: Buda Mendes / Getty Images)

The double-amputee sprinter-jumper from Pretoria is relocating to London – to study business management and to tune up for the Games in Paris next year.

Reigning Paralympic T61 200m and long jump gold medallist Ntando Mahlangu has been around for what feels like an eternity. So much so, it comes as a surprise that he is only 21 years old. With the double-amputee winning his first Summer Paralympics medal at just 14 years old, when he clinched a silver in the T42 200m at Rio in 2016, he is someone mature beyond his years.

Seven years after announcing himself as a force in athletics, Mahlangu – who spent his formative years as a pupil at Laerskool Constantia Park in Pretoria – is still ravenous for success.

The former Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (more popularly known as Affies) pupil says he is as passionate as ever about his sport – even after adding two more Paralympic medals to his 2016 gong. He won double gold at the Covid-19-delayed 2020 Games in Tokyo two years ago.

“To stay hungry is a very difficult thing, because you know you have to do a lot of things. The easiest way to go about it is to remember why you did this in the first place,” Mahlangu told Daily Maverick.

The athlete was speaking on the sidelines of an Under Armour event at which the sports apparel brand – one of his long-time sponsors – was launching a new shop at Menlyn Shopping Centre in Tshwane.

“When I started running, I was running to feel the wind. I was running for the fun of it. It was never for the glamour and all those other things that come with it,” Mahlangu continued.

“The reason I became an athlete was because I enjoyed hearing the wind whistle past my ears. So, every day when I wake up, I ask myself if I still want to hear that sound, whether I still want to feel that feeling. Then I go about it and take it day by day.”

10 years in a wheelchair

Ntando Mahlangu runs to hear the wind whistling past his ears

Mahlangu spent the first 10 years of his life in a wheelchair. (Photo: Roger Sedres / Gallo Images)

Born on 26 January 2002, he spent the first 10 years of his life in a wheelchair. He suffered from fibular hemimelia, a congenital condition which affects development of the legs below the knees.

When he was 10, it was recommended his legs be amputated at the knees. He and his family agreed.

As the 2012 Paras were being contested, Mahlangu was adjusting to a new world – ditching his wheelchair and learning to walk with prostheses provided by the nonprofit Jumping Kids.

He had to master balancing and walking before he could run, but 11 years later he has won multiple sprinting medals nationally and internationally.

He will not defend his 200m Paralympic title as the event has been scrapped. This means he can put all his effort into preparing for the T63/61 (single and double amputees) long jump. He is the defending champion and also the world record holder after leaping 7.17m in Tokyo.

Mahlangu is extremely confident of success at the Paris edition of the Games – his third appearance at the quadrennial athletics extravaganza, which takes place from 28 August to 8 September 2024.

“We’re busy preparing for next year’s Paralympics. It’s going to be a good year. But the preparation starts now. That’s one of the things people will be asking me next year – ‘How does it feel to win the gold?’ Well, the journey starts now, a year from the Paralympics,” the self-assured young man told Daily Maverick.

“I’m at a place where I’m very relaxed and doing what I have to do to make sure I win it. I’m not chasing anyone’s record, but I’m chasing my own record. Do I want to learn more? Do I want to adapt? Yes. I want to grow,” he added.

Balance training and studies

Ntando Mahlangu runs to hear the wind whistling past his ears

Mahlangu in action at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty images)

Mahlangu has taken a leap of faith and has moved to London for the lead-up to the Paralympics. He will balance training for the long jump title defence alongside business management studies at England’s Loughborough University. And even though he won’t be running in Paris next year, he will still have the opportunity to feel the wind whistling past his ears as he competes for the university at other athletics meets.

“I’m off to London to start my preseason for next year, making sure I’m getting the body into the right condition and getting that European season under the belt. That’s something I haven’t yet done.”

The most difficult part about leaving South Africa is leaving a supportive family, especially his parents.

“It was quite a hard decision to take, to be a year away from my parents. But you take it in your stride and soldier on.”

As for the future of South African athletics in general after the poor showing at the recent World Athletics Championships, where the country failed to pick up a single medal, the athlete is unsure.

“That question is easy if we say what’s the future for Ntando Mahlangu in athletics. I would say I back myself to go further,” he said.

He thought the problem might be a general changing of the guard. Replacing generational talents such as runners Caster Semenya and Wayde van Niekerk, plus javelin thrower Sunette Vijoen, will not be easy.

“You have to have that dip. It’s normal. Newcomers have to get the experience. They have to run at the World Championships, run at the Paralympics, run at the Olympics,” Mahlangu said. DM

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

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