Shooting for the stars

Star Paralympian, Mpumelelo Mhlongo, says the Covid-19 enforced lockdown has given him enough time to focus on his studies and that when he gets back on the track, more world records will be broken.

Multi-talented athlete and Paralympian, Mpumelelo Mhlongo, doesn’t feel he has lost much, especially as an athlete, during the crazy year that was 2020.

The 26-year-old University of Cape Town Chemical Engineering PhD student says rather than worrying about his training being disrupted, he used the time to focus on his studies.

However, he says this does not mean he will be any less competitive once back on the track.

He has a couple of world records to his name but refuses to put a big target on his back when asked about the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo.

Mhlongo says he focuses on having a strong competition before paying attention to the colour of the medal he might get afterwards.

But his form in the past couple of years and the records he has broken are proof that his competitors should keep a close eye on him.

Mhlongo broke his own 100m record in the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, running 11.09s. He also specialises in the 200m and long jump.

He was born with amniotic band syndrome, a rare birth defect, which left his right leg shorter and less developed.

He has always been a sportsman, playing football as a child, but only took up a para sport six years ago after going for classification. He is a T44 competitor – athletes with limb impairment.

His achievements since have made him a household name in athletics.

The year 2014 saw Mhlongo taking part in the national championships and he went on to represent the country in the world championships in Doha a year later.

“Individually the year has been good to me; it gave me an extra year where I can focus on my studies, it gave me an extra year to rebuild where I was injured.

“In the world championships in 2019, even though I got a silver medal in the 100m and a bronze medal in the long jump, I did it injured, so we had to figure out what that injury was.

“This year I have been better and feeling stronger and ready to break more world records with the gap it has given me.”

Even while focusing on the brighter side of things individually, Mhlongo is aware of the new realities that come with Covid-19, including that many companies have been affected by the lockdown and that venues to practise are no longer available.

“For sports we have lost funding, we’ve lost some organisations that supported us.

“The livelihood of many athletes are gone now because of the lack of facilities.

“Our competitors who somehow did not lose out much will have an advantage when it comes to games like the Tokyo Paralympics but personally I will make them eat dust even in these circumstances,” said Mhlongo.

Even though he is confident of a strong performance come Tokyo 2021, Mhlongo is fully focused on personal achievements, targeting 7.80m in long jump, a distance which in any Paralympic games is worthy of either a gold or silver medal.

He is also looking to improve on the 11sec he ran in the 100m in last year’s World Para Athletics Championships while not feeling well.

In Tokyo he is looking to clock 10.84sec, which is a gold medal standard in Paralympics.

With those huge targets he has set for himself, he says should they be accompanied by a medal, that would be the cherry on top.

“We are trying to not focus on medals but the performance and if that performance gives us a medal we will be very happy, if not, it’s all well because we would have reached our target,” he said.

Mhlongo’s achievements have seen him take home the Western Cape Sportsman with a Disability of the Year award in 2019 and he was named in the Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans in 2019.

Five times in a row he has been named the UCT Sportsperson of the Year, a feat only he enjoys and remarkable given that UCT boasts great sporting personalities such as swimming legend Natalie du Toit and squash ace Siyoli Lusaseni.

To help fellow athletes, especially during the hard Covid-19 times, Mhlongo used his partnership with betting company Betway to inject some funds into the Western Province Sport Association for the Physically Disabled (WPSAPD).

A total of R30 000 worth of sporting equipment was donated by the betting company this month as part of lending a hand during global Disability Awareness Month.

The equipment will be distributed to different sporting bodies that fall under the WPSAPD to help prepare for the year 2021 as many sporting codes are now allowed to return to business after the easing of the lockdown regulations.