What brings a twinkle to veteran Paralympian, Maties Parasport athlete and Stellenbosch Sport Ambassador Zanele Situ’s eye?
Is it the honour of being chosen as South Africa’s flag bearer for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games?
Is it the knowledge that she was the first black South African to win a gold medal at Paralympic level? Could it be the ministerial recognition for excellence in sport award she received recently?
Or any of the other awards, including the National Order of Ikhamanga for Outstanding Achievement, that have been be-stowed on this Stellenbosch resident – who became paralysed due to suspected spinal tuberculosis when she was in her teens?
It is… none of the above. No discussion about medals or accolades lights up Zanele’s face in the same way as when she is talking about her daughter: 10-year-old Azamazi is the light of her mother’s life.
“I am as proud of her as she is of me,” says Zanele.
Which says a lot, because Azamazi has many reasons to be proud of her mother, who will be competing in her fifth Paralympic Games in September.
“When I started my disability journey, I didn’t know about sport for people with disabilities,” Zanele recalls.
After she lost the use of her legs, she started attending a special school, where she was introduced to various sporting codes. “I didn’t know about big competitions, I was just having fun.”
In 1996, Zanele qualified for the World Championships in England, where she won gold medals for javelin and shot put.
She was also entered to compete in table tennis, but it clashed with her other items.
At that stage, medals, records and fame didn’t really make a big impression on her.
“When I won gold and broke the world record in the javelin event at the Paralympic Games in Sydney the coaches, managers and my teammates were all very happy, but I didn’t really understand what was happening,” she remembers.
She also won a silver medal in the discus event in Sydney, and followed it up with another gold medal in the javelin event in Athens four years later.
Over time, she became more used to travelling and competing, but her favourite part of doing sport is training on her own.
“I don’t have to talk – my mind can just switch off,” she says.
Zanele moved to Stellenbosch in 2009, and started training with her current coach, Karin le Roux, in 2010.
Although she dislikes travelling, she competes at international competitions to compare herself with the best in the world.
Nationally she doesn’t really have a competitor, and as time goes by those medals and titles don’t mean as much anymore. She would rather finish in fourth place but know that she had improved on previous results.
“I want to know I gave my best and worked hard for good results.”
This is also what she teaches her daughter, who is a budding sport star in her own right and does well in athletics and gymnastics.
“I want my daughter to know that life has ups and downs and you don’t always win, but losing is also good because you learn more. I tell her that if she falls, she must stand up.
“She must lift herself up and go forward. She can’t wait for someone else to lift her up,” she says.
Depending on her circumstances, Zanele doesn’t plan on quitting sport any time soon. She is also willing to share her experience with others.
“Since I started my disability journey I learnt a lot. I can now give advice and assist other people who might be in the same position.”
* The Stellenbosch Sport Ambassadors programme aims to empower local athletes on their journey of excellence. Their empowerment will in turn market Stellenbosch as a town of excellence and inspire the immediate community.
The programme is a working partnership between the Stellenbosch Municipality, the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport and Maties Sport.
Like the Stellenbosch Sport Ambassadors page on Facebook or follow them on Twitter at @SboschSA.