South Africa’s Sizwe Ndlovu and John Smith celebrate after winning the gold medal in the men’s lightweight four final rowing event during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Eton Dorney on August 2, 2012. Photo: Reuters

JOHANNESBURG – Olympic gold medallist Sizwe Ndlovu doesn’t shy away from his challenging past.

In fact, the 37-year-old says growing up in poverty helped him develop into the Olympic medal winner he is today. It also humbled him.

“If I had to live my life again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I learnt valuable life lessons. It made me who I am, and without that upbringing, I don’t think that I would have stood on the podium and won gold for South Africa.”

Ndlovu, who was part of South Africa’s rowing team that clinched gold at the London 2012 Olympics, remembers many nights going to bed hungry.

“It was just something that we had to kind of get used to because there just wasn’t any money, especially towards the end of the month.”

Ndlovu barely saw his parents. He grew up with his two sets of grandparents, who lived in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, while his mother, a domestic worker, and his father, a taxi driver, battled for an income in Johannesburg.

“My mother was a domestic worker, and domestic workers work 24 hours a day. My mom stayed at her employers, so I had to stay with my grandparents.

“The only time I would see my parents was when I’d visit them during school holidays,” says Ndlovu, recalling his childhood in a rural village in Newcastle.

“I had to walk plus-minus 20km just to get to school every day. And when we went to school, we had to push a wheelbarrow because on the way back home, we needed to collect 25 litres of water and take it home. We needed the water for cooking, and to wash our own clothes.

“We also lived in a shack, and so winters were really terrible. There were many days where we went to bed hungry, but that was life.”

Ndlovu didn’t have much time to focus on his own goals and dreams. “It was more about surviving each and every day, to be honest. It was a really hard life, but a life that made me the man I am today.”

Sizwe Ndlovu after arriving at OR Tambo International Airport in August 2012.Photo: Phill Magakoe

It’s hardly surprising that the Olympic gold medallist has jumped at the chance to help raise funds for underprivileged children in South Africa.

In March, Ndlovu will be taking part in the Unogwaja Challenge, which compromises a 10-day, 1 660km cycle from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg, followed by a gruelling 89km run in the Comrades Marathon the next day.

Proceeds from the fundraising goes to The Unogwaja Light Fund, which generates financial support for community-based organisations in South Africa, focusing on education and skills development.

“The journey is inspired by a man by the name of Phil Masterton-Smith, who had to cycle from Cape Town to participate in the race because he could not afford the train fare to get there leisurely like everyone else. I want to participate in Unogwaja because Masterton-Smith’s story resonates with me.

“I want to do it for me – for the disadvantaged, underfunded child I once was who, like Phil Masterton-Smith, had to fight against all odds to make his dream happen, and for whom the journey itself became something beautiful.”

Ndlovu knows all about fighting against the odds to make his dreams happen. Apart from battling poverty, he faced an uphill battle getting to the Olympics.

“I had to stop my studies and start working to chase my Olympic dream. I faced a chronic lack of funding. I lost my father in 2007 and my mother in 2008. I was diagnosed with asthma.

“I missed my first shot at the Olympics, in 2004 in Athens. I was ill in 2007, and I once again missed the Olympics in Beijing in 2008.

“I have been injured, had operations and been in rehab. But finally, after 14 years of hard work, our team reached our Olympic dream and won gold in London 2012.”

He’s a fighter. “You learn to keep on pushing no matter how tough life is and no matter what life throws at you.”

Ndlovu, who is today the head coach for the University of Johannesburg’s rowing team as well as the brand ambassador of the Blades Hotel in Pretoria, knows Unogwaja will be an extreme challenge, but the former Mondeor High School student relishes it.

“South Africa needs more everyday heroes – ordinary people who achieve extraordinary things through sheer determination and willpower. Good men and women who provide inspiration for the next generation of South Africans.”

Ndlovu wants to give hope to children who’s grown up in poverty just like he did. 

“I know what it’s like to have nothing and to feel hopeless and helpless at times. It’s a terrible feeling.

“I want to show kids who are in a similar situation to what I was in that there is hope, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“And the Unogwaja race is the perfect platform because it is a sport, and sport has helped me get to where I am today.”

* For more details visit or contact Ndlovu on [email protected]

Saturday Star

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