By Janine Self
When South African schoolboy Ntando Mahlangu chose to have both legs amputated at the knee in order to walk for the first time, his worried parents questioned the 10-year-old’s brave decision.
Four years later, the teenage sprinter is the world No2 in the T42 200-metre event and a gold-medal contender at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
‘They (his parents) weren’t keen but they understand now,’ Mahlangu said. ‘I made the decision to amputate. I wanted to give it a go. I was told that if I amputated my legs I could have a prosthesis and I could walk so I said, “Why not?”.
‘My parents were not keen about it. They didn’t really want me to have an operation and cut my legs off, but I wanted to do it. They were just at that stage where they thought I was just a little kid to make such a decision.’
Mahlangu, the baby of the South Africa team at 14, was born with hemimelia, which affects the development of the lower leg, and he required a wheelchair to aid his mobility. He dreamed of becoming a footballer and admitted he paid little attention to the most recent Paralympic Games.
‘I was just learning to walk (in 2012 during the London Paralympic Games),’ he said. ‘I was so excited when I took my first step that I vomited. The guy (doctor) asked me why I vomited and I told him I was so happy. I learned fast, in about five days.’
A charity, Jumping Kids, provided his prosthetics. ‘The first legs I got were blades and from then on all I wanted to do was run,’ he said.
‘It was hard for me. I spent my life in a wheelchair from one year to 10 years old. Some of the kids teased me but I forgave them and they don’t tease me any more. They look up to me.’
Mahlangu, who also runs in the T42 100m, has two pairs of blades in Rio, both specially made for the Games.
‘There is the Team SA flag over there at the bottom of the blade,’ he said. ‘Here’s Christ the Redeemer and some green colours. These are my everyday walking legs. I don’t have normal feet so I’m always on my blades.
‘My running legs are similar but I also have a few names of people who helped me come to Rio and when I am running I am just going to look at them.
‘When I am in my blocks I just think of myself and I think of what I’m going to do because this is my race, not your race, not someone who is running next to you. I am running alone.
‘When I go over the line I come back to this world and I’m like, ‘Oh, I was running with you’.’
Mahlangu combines school with training and admits his life in the north-eastern province of Mpumalanga has been transformed since his operation.
‘I was in a disabled school because I didn’t have legs but now I go to an Afrikaans school which is much better. I go training two to three hours after school then do my homework.
‘I wouldn’t say I was good at school but I am progressing. I want to be an engineer when I grow up.
‘Athletics is not work for me. It is something that I like. When it starts becoming work it’s not nice.’
Mahlangu faces London 2012 champion Richard Whitehead (GBR) in the 200m but insists he is not thinking of medals.
‘My hopes are to do my best,’ he said. ‘If I run my best and do the time the gold will come to me.’
Self is a sports writer for the Paralympic News Service