But following a bizarre and brutal roadside attack near the University of KwaZulu-Natal in which three assailants tried to cut off his legs, allegedly with a power saw, Gwala is unlikely to run with the same strength again.
The attackers almost dismembered his right lower leg, hacking through 80% of the bone below his knee, also destroying most of the muscular and nerve tissue.
Remarkably, the 27 year old is eager to get back on his bicycle and reinvent himself on the sporting scene once he has recovered.
But that is going to take time, doctors warned.
The incident happened on Rick Turner Road near UKZN at about 3.30am on Tuesday.
Gwala was cycling up the the lower end of Rick Turner Road (near the Bellair Road Sasol garage) en route to meet fellow triathlete Sandile Shange for an early morning training session.
After stopping him in the dimly lit road, one of the assailants pulled out a firearm. They then dragged Gwala into the bush and started sawing off his legs before abandoning the scene - without having stolen Gwala’s iPhone, watch and mountain bike - total value estimated about R70 000.
While speculation ran rife about the motive for the attack this week, it was left to surgeons to repair the leg damage.
“The most devastating blow was that of the tibial nerve which was completely transected,” said plastic surgeon, Dr O’Sharran Singh who, together with Dr Firoz Kariel reconstructed Gwala’s severed leg in a complex five-and-half-hour operation at St Augustine’s hospital.
Singh said while there had been conflicting reports as to whether attackers had used a hand saw or power-driven chainsaw, he said the extent and nature of the injuries, and that the attackers cut through 80% of bone on Gwala’s right leg, showed it was a chainsaw.
Singh said while tissue damage was not serious, his right leg required major reconstructive surgery.
This involved fixating the bone, using rods and pins, and then the more complex task repairing the muscle and nerve tissue.
“At the moment he is stable and not at risk of losing his leg, but rehabilitation is not predictable. I highly doubt he will be able to function again at a competitive level in the near future. His progress will be reassessed every two months,” Singh said Kariel concurred: “his bone is probably going to heal without any significant issues”.
“The problem is the recovery from his nerve injury.”
He said the process would take at least 12-18 months, and a minimum of six months before any assessment could be made on “what sort of recovery we can expect”. “But his return to professional sport is very unlikely.”
Gwala, though, relieved to have not lost his leg, said even if he might never be able to run with the same strength, he hoped to recover well enough to cycle again and perform well in other areas of sport associated with lifesaving.
Speaking to the Sunday Tribune after being visited by a government delegation led by Minister of Sport and Recreation Thokozile Xasa, Gwala said he would not be able to recognise his assailants as it had all happened in a dimly lit section. “All I can say is that they were fairly well dressed and spoke a foreign language. At first they were friendly. They greeted me, and asked where I was going. Then one of them pulled out a gun,” Gwala said.
“I offered them my iPhone and my watch. Even my bike. But they were not interested.”
He said after he was dragged off the road, two of them had pinned him down, while another started sawing at his right leg.
“From the noise, I think it was a power saw,” he said, “but I was also screaming so loudly in pain, it was hard to tell.”
After the saw got stuck in the bone of his right leg, he said they suddenly started to cut at his left leg.
“Then they suddenly stopped when one of them got up to go and look at something. When he came back, I heard him say: ‘let’s go’. Then they left.”
He said he had tried to call the police emergency line on his cellphone, but got no response. He also tried to call Shange who had been planning to meet up for training, and also got no answer.
So he crawled to the side of the road, where he managed to wave down a Fidelity Guard vehicle. “They took me straight to the Albert Luthuli hospital,” said Gwala. Shange said when he received the phone call from Gwala from the hospital that morning, he thought at first it was a joke.
“Then a paramedic took the phone and told me to get to casualty as soon as possible.
“When I got there, what I saw really shocked me. It still does,” said Shange. “I cannot understand why anyone would do this.”
“It was jealousy,” said Gwala’s uncle, Zweli Magwaza. “They went straight for his legs. They never touched him anywhere else. They also could have shot him, taken all his things, but they did not. I think they knew him and his training routine.”
Gwala’s mother Fundi Magwaza said while she was still confused by thoughts of why someone would want to hurt her son, she was proud of his fighting spirit and the fact that he was smiling after such a traumatic ordeal.
She said she remembered, how as a child, her son had recovered well from a broken leg in a soccer incident.
“He was always active, that’s why he became such a strong runner,” said Magwaza.
South African team doctor Dr Kevin Subban from Prime Human Performance Centre, said Gwala had been in the sport to change his life following hospitalisation for alcohol and drug addiction in 2011.
“Mhlengi has been on our programme since its inception four years ago. He was really progressing well, to such an extent that if you know the history, he has come out of a really bad situation.
“He felt that sport had changed his life,” Subban said.
“When I spoke to him yesterday, he said, ‘hey doc, you know what? I want to get back on my bike again because I don’t want to go back to those ways’. I said to him we are going to do everything possible to do that. In that regard, the surgery is over. Now comes the rehabilitation part.
“Apart from the rehabilitation of the body, we have to rehabilitate the mind. This is a post-traumatic event and I am arranging psychologists to see him and his family,” Subban said.
He said the Department of Sport was helping cover Gwala’s rehabilitation costs.
“So the family does not have to worry about that. We also appreciate the public’s efforts to raise funds for his rehabilitation.
“He was the breadwinner and had a job as a lifesaver on Durban’s beaches.
“He is not going to be able to do that right now, so all that money that is coming in is going to help him sustain his family.”
The www.backabuddy.co.za crowd-fundraising campaign, Get Mhlengi Back on His Bike, had raised R 647025 by midday yesterday toward Gwala’s medical expenses, transportation and rehabilitation costs.
While the campaign originally intended to raise funds for Gwala’s bicycle replacement, the top-of-the range mountain bike has since been recovered from the scene of the attack.
SAPS spokesperson, Captain Nqobile Gwala, said no one had reported the case to the police. “The police received an enquiry from the media about the incident.
“That’s when we started our investigation. We found Gwala in the hospital. That is when the docket was opened,” she said. Gwala was unable to divulge any details about the investigation thus far, but did urge anyone who might have information about the incident to contact the police on 08600 10111.