If there's one image that epitomised the South African Olympic team as they left for Athens on Tuesday, it was the cheshire-cat smile that Duncan Mahlangu just couldn't wipe off his face.

"This is amazing. It's like something I've been waiting for all my life. Like waiting for a taxi and seeing it coming, you know your time's come," an elated Mahlangu said in an interview at the Pretoria High Performance Centre on Tuesday as he packed his belongings before leaving to fulfil every young athlete's dream.

The 20-year-old Mahlangu might use the township taxi analogy to describe his feelings. But not many youngsters from Ga-Rankuwa's Mmakau village become Olympians, let alone compete in the Korean martial art taekwando.

Tae means to "kick or smash with the foot", kwon means "to destroy with the fist" and do means "the art or way of" and Mahlangu's certainly kicked, smashed and destroyed all

barriers before him as he's forced his way into South Africa's Olympic team.

And Mahlangu's current number two world ranking makes him a dark horse for a podium position.

Mahlangu owes his world ranking and his Olympic ticket to a fairy tale performance at the World Olympic Qualifying tournament in Paris in December.

With 110 countries competing in his category and only four automatic Olympic qualifying places up for grabs, Mahlangu stunned world taekwondo by making it to the final.

Nobody gave the scrawny young South African with the cheesy grin a chance, but he showed them, swatting aside competitors from Mali, Sweden, Cuba, Guatemala and Italy en route to the final.

"Nobody really took any notice of me. The television crews didn't even film any of my fights," said Mahlangu.

But when he made it all the way to the final, they couldn't ignore him any more.

Unfortunately, a swollen foot caused him to forfeit that final against Korea's Won Jae Lee, in a scene that's reminiscent of one of the Karate Kid movies.

Mahlangu could well face Lee again at the Olympics.

Born "with a love for martial arts", Mahlangu was persuaded by his brother, Andrew, to share his love for karate.

Mahlangu's Korean coach, JH Cho, was impressed when he first encountered him four years ago and immediately sent him to Korea for training.

"He did not have the proper equipment and technically he wasn't as good as some of the other kids. But he was hungry. After he returned from Korea, taekwando masters and professors told me he had the potential to reach the top," said Cho.

Then in 2002, as an 18-year-old, he won a silver medal at the Korean Open, the toughest taekwando tournament around.

"Have you ever done something you've never ever done before? Looked back and thought 'wow did I just do that?'," Mahlangu reflected philosophically as he recalled that Korean Open two years ago.

"It was the first time I had won international fights. I realised then that no matter where you're from, you can be an achiever.

"Being an Olympian comes with a lot of responsibility. People say 'go and make us proud'. But it's hard. Taekwando's a knockout sport and anything can happen. My coach told me actors don't start off wanting an Oscar, they do it for the love of acting and are rewarded with an Oscar.

"I am going to Athens to do what I love, to do what I do best and hopefully my reward is going to be an Olympic medal," said Mahlangu.

Medal or not, he's already given Mmakau - also the birthplace of Armgold mining magnate Patrice Motsepe - a new hero.

So proud is his school, Malatse Motsepe High, that they last week hired an open-decker bus to parade him around town.

The president of the South African Taekwando Federation, Godfrey Mokoboto, is also beside himself with joy.

"I identified him when he was just a little boy," said Mokoboto on Tuesday, adding: "He had to leave school to pursue taekwando seriously, but we knew he had potential and we weren't wrong."