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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Former South African national rugby player shares sport that ‘saved’ him with girls he coaches

NICHOLAS KLINGMAN|


Durban, South Africa – On a sunny but crisp winter day in June, a group of girls lined up facing one another in a field next to Mowat Park High School, each taking turns punting a rugby ball to their designated partner. 

One ball, carried by the blustery wind, soared just above Coach Wandile Khumalo’s head, causing him to quickly duck as the girls laughed. Khumalo shook his head in amusement as he gathered himself to his feet on the sidelines.

It’s been a long journey for Khumalo, a 40-year-old former South African national rugby player and transgender man, who now coaches at Mowat Park, an all-girls school in Montclair, a southern suburb of Durban.

Khumalo was hired as the public school’s sports coordinator and rugby coach in March. In addition to rugby, he organizes other sports opportunities for the girls that rotate each term, including swimming and netball.

Khumalo was an easy hire and the obvious choice for the position, according to Principal Amanda Ngidi, who served as vice principal of Mowat Park since 2012 and has been principal since March.

“When we looked at [his] resume, it was exactly what we were looking for,” Ngidi said. “ We needed a person who’s experienced in terms of working with the youth and would understand the issues that they’re actually dealing with. There’s not that much gap in terms of age and exposure as well.”

Growing up, Khumalo gravitated toward sports. His grandfather taught him boxing when he was 5 and he played soccer at a young age. At 15 he discovered rugby and his lifelong passion began. After being diagnosed with depression at the age of 13, dealing with anger issues and realizing he was transgender, Khumalo found in rugby a valuable outlet to deal constructively with a tumult of emotions. 

“The beautiful thing with sports and rugby is that you can tackle someone and no one’s going to blow you up for it,” Khumalo said. “I had a place to go to let out all my anger issues.”

Khumalo’s first official game was in 2000 at the now dubbed Hollywoodbets Kings Park Stadium, home of the South African rugby union team called the Sharks. A few years later, top players from around the country were selected to join the women’s national team but Khumalo did not make the cut.

“I was hurt. I was so hurt,” Khumalo recalled thinking back to that moment. “That drove me to work harder. I ran more, I did more than anyone else, [and] I trained three times a day.”

Khumalo was invited once again to the national trials in 2004 but was not selected as a member of the final roster after being cut a second time. A friend of his made the team, though, and he spent his time working out with her. He was relentless when it came to preparing for his next opportunity.

“I used to try whatever she was doing,” Khumalo said. “If she was benching 40, I would try to bench 40. If she was squatting 100, I would try and do that.”

Khumalo’s determined approach to training eventually earned him a spot on the women’s national team where he played for five years as an open side flank/fetcher.

“It was phenomenal,” Khumalo said. “I can’t even explain it. It was like the pieces were finally coming together.”

Khumalo’s time on the national team wasn’t perfect, though. On one occasion, Khumalo said he was humiliated by his teammates during a bus trip after a game. Rather than trying to stop the humiliation, Khumalo said his coach did nothing. That experience led him to want to become a coach himself one day.

“I wanted to make sure there were just more [girls], and they could grow the sport,” Khumalo said. 

In 2019, Khumalo affirmed himself as transgender. In 2020, he co-founded uThingo Collective, a clothing brand designed to empower and create awareness for the LGBTQ+ community.

“I started uThingo for queer visibility,” Khumalo said. “We wanted to create something that speaks to the queer community and for people to know we exist and are capable of incredible things.”

uThingo offers clothing and other items for toddlers to adults, featuring the brand’s distinct umbrella logo. 

“Our logo is an umbrella to show people that we are inclusive and we accept everyone to be their authentic self,” Khumalo said. “Those who are still finding themselves, we see you and we love you.”

That is the message Khumalo wants to send to his players on the field too.

When Khumalo arrived at Mowat Park earlier this year, he developed an immediate connection with the girls, Ngidi noticed.

“He knows all his team members by name and he will also tell you the issues that they have personally,” Ngidi said. “[It] says there is [a] connection between him and our girl children. And he’s an easy person to go to. He’s taking a holistic approach.”

Adrianna Nyamanhindi, a lock positional player on the team, noted that Coach, as the girls call him, is always there to offer advice on the field no matter what.

“Whenever somebody [makes] a mistake, he’s always [saying], ‘do you want to talk about it’. That’s my favorite catchphrase,” she said.

Other players said they also appreciate Khumalo’s encouragement and mentoring style.

“He tells us it’s not all about winning, so that’s really cool,” said Bayanda Mkhize, a front row positional player.

Wandile said he has landed in the right community at Mowat Park.

“I feel supported here at Mowat Park as a trans man and also it is a safe place,” Khumalo said. “And most definitely, I can be an advocate for other queer students.”

The students advocate for him as well. In an incident during a school event where Khumalo was misgendered by another colleague, his players were quick to defend their coach.

“The kids stood up for me and said, ‘We know Coach doesn’t like that and we aren’t going to stand for it’,” Khumalo recalled. “It was a beautiful moment, [and] I can’t even put it into words.”

he Mowat Park rugby team currently holds a 40% win/loss record after playing for less than four months. Individual players have posted successes as well. One, Risima Koza, played for the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province team, which won the U15 national championship earlier this month. As a national champion, Koza earned an automatic spot on the Ethekwini (Durban) team, joined by teammates Aphiwe Mzulwini, Selusiwe Makambi and Axande Mbotho.

While Khumalo is now busy mentoring the next generation of female rugby players, he said he is mindful of how rugby shaped his own life and how valuable it was for his foundation.

“It honestly saved my life,” Khumalo said. “There was a lot of things going on at home and so for me being on the sports floor, it was my saving grace. That’s why I call it the sacred place.”

HawkNews

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