NTANDO Mahlangu won his first Paralympic Games medal at the age of 14. Five years on from that memorable day in Rio, it’s fair to say that the track and field athlete is confident of turning silver to gold when he limbers up for his two events – the 200m and long jump – at the Tokyo Games.
He will be competing in the T63 category on account of having been born with fibular hemimelia, which causes the lower leg to under-develop, which saw him have both legs amputated at the knee in 2012.
His first event is on Saturday, when he competes in the long jump (second session), followed by the 200m on September 3, both of which will be live on SuperSport.
The South African prodigy may have spent most of the first 10 years of his life in a wheelchair, but he’s made up for it since by embracing athletics and its challenges. His carbon fibre blades have become a natural extension and his affinity for racing gives him every chance to boost his international reputation.
He won 200m gold at the world championship two years ago, but real renown came last year when he featured in the Netflix documentary “Rising Phoenix” that profiled nine Paralympians.
“It taught me a lot, and showed that I’m involved in a huge thing,” he reflected before leaving for Tokyo.
As one of the youngsters of the squad, he looks up to South African veterans like Ernst van Dyk (48) and Tyrone Pillay (41), although he says his early hero was Usain Bolt, like him a sprinter.
Mahlangu mixes up his training – three days sprinting, three days long jump – with just a single day off each week. He also juggles the pressures of school, where he is in his final year at Afrikaans Hoërskool (Affies) in Pretoria. He talks optimistically of perhaps studying overseas next year.
But all his focus for now is on the Games and his plans to gain a podium place.
“I’m going for gold in both,” he said. “I’ve trained well, raced and am injury-free. I’m super-excited.”
By happy coincidence, the charity that gave him his first blades (Jumping Kids) in 2012 now benefits from him – he is an ambassador for them and helps inspire children with disabilities.
He was also one of the ambassadors for US television channel Cartoon Network’s anti-bullying campaign in 2017, “Be a Buddy, Not a Bully”. It was an apt partnership given that he was bullied as a youngster on account of his disability.
“Ntando is a humble and kind person,” says Leon Fleiser, South Africa’s chef de mission in Japan. “He is down to earth even though he is a superstar. I hope that he improves on Rio and continues to be a role model for young athletes.”
Mahlangu has little interest in being compared to other Paralympian sprinters. He wants to carve out his own reality and make his own name.
Given his form and confidence, he has every chance of doing so.
- * SuperSport