A few hours after he had crashed but not burned in the semi-final of the BMX World Championships in Birmingham, Sifiso Nhlapo found himself standing outside his hotel room early yesterday morning. “Awesome. Someone just set the fire alarm off at my hotel. Emergency evacuation in progress,” tweeted Nhlapo.
But it would take more than losing some sleep or even that heavy crash in the semi-final of the World Championships to dim the joy that raged through Nhlapo in Birmingham on Saturday night.
He’d come down heavily on his shoulder and missed out on a chance of a medal, but the bigger goal, qualifying for the London Olympics, had been achieved.
“It’s been a tough weekend’s racing,” said Nhlapo. “I’ve worked really hard up until this point. I didn’t have all the tools in my bag, what with having my injury last year and struggling to come back every weekend. I just kept battling away. I managed to keep the Olympic dream alive and managed to get into the top 16, the semi-final, which was awesome for me. I just tried to keep it on two wheels all the time. Being in the semi-finals is as good as being in the main. All of us want to get in that main and we want to win, and I was bummed I couldn’t get into that main. I really wanted it that bad.”
Nhlapo had qualified for London by making the quarterfinals, but he has a history of racing well in the World Championships, a man for the big races.
At the 2008 world champs in China he finished third; in 2009 he was injured; in 2010 he took silver at the world champs in Pietermaritzburg and in 2011 he was injured.
Mark Squire, his manager, told me he believed Nhlapo would do something special in Birmingham.
Nhlapo was back in sixth or seventh place, looking for a bit of luck to finish fourth and qualify for the final, but the crash put paid to that. After a spat of injuries, including a broken neck in 2009 and damaging his ACL in 2011, Nhlapo’s road to London has been a tough one.
“I’m glad I’m in one piece. My shoulder’s quite sore now, but I’m glad I’m in one piece. I should be good to go in about a week’s time,” said Nhlapo.
He was a medal contender for South Africa in the Beijing Games.
Sascoc were desperate for him to succeed after a poor Olympics that had returned just one medal. Nhlapo was the only rider in Beijing not to have crashed all the way through the qualifiers and the semi-finals. Starting in lane 2 beside favourite and eventual gold medallist Maris Strombergs, Nhlapo started well, lying second coming out of the first berm, but heading into the second-last corner he was fourth and went in a little hot, floating over the long jump.
His front wheel washed out and he collided with Australian Jared Graves, crashing out of the final.
Nhlapo was inconsolable, sobbing at the side of the track. Then he disappeared into the team hut behind the track and would not talk to the South African media.
Tony Harding, the South African cycling man said he was “sorry” and that he felt he had let down his country.
That was four years ago. On Saturday night, Nhlapo, who had all but been written off as an Olympic medal chance, muscled his way back into the reckoning.
“It’s been a really rough, rough year for me. The support has helped me get through all the tough stages,” said Nhlapo. “I’m really focusing on the Olympic Games now. That’s the mission on my mind.
“I’m going there to be a contender. I’m not just going there to survive and roll around the track, I’m going there to be a contender.”