Photo: Instagram/Mhlengi Gwala
When 27-year-old South African triathlete Mhlengi Gwala set out for a training run one morning in March, little did he know his life would change forever. Ambushed by three men, Gwala was dragged into the bushes at gunpoint, where his attackers tried to saw his legs off.
In an interview with BBC Sport Africa, Gwala said: “I tried to ask what I did wrong but they didn’t reply. They were talking to themselves in a language I didn’t understand and started to grab my feet and cut my leg – as if they were cutting a tree.”
Amazingly, not only did the 27-year-old survive the attack with both his legs still intact, he has returned to running four months later and is now training for an Ironman.
“It won’t stop me doing what I love”
Previous to the chainsaw attack, Gwala had been robbed three times, with a gun and with a knife, but this was different. The triathlete believes his attackers knew he was an athlete and had seen him training early in the morning between Chesterville and Mayville before.
Photo: Instagram/Mhlengi Gwala
Thankfully, after trying to saw off his legs for a while, his attackers stopped suddenly and left Gwala in the bushes. The father-of-two now believes his lucky escape was due to the chainsaw breaking. Telling the BBC, “when I was lying there, the pain was very much. Then I thought about my kids – that if I die, then they’ll never see me again.”
Heroically, this spurred Gwala to crawl to the roadside, where he was found and taken to hospital.
The road to recovery
Using his social media accounts, Gwala has shared his positive attitude to recovery. Whilst his surgeons believed it would take years for his legs to fully recover, Gwala shared a video of his first session back on the bike just three months later with the caption: “What a blessing morning today first time on the bike after my accident. I’m so happy to say I’m back on the game.”
In July, he shared a video of his first run since the attack. Telling the BBC “I was very happy when I did my first run, but it was emotional because I was running like a crab. I even cried when I saw the video because it was way different to what it was before when I used to run straight. But I said to myself that I need to give myself some time – the more I practise, the more I get better.”
In just 48 hours after his attack, a crowdfunding page set up for Gwala raised more than £24,000 to help support the triathlete in his medical bills and rehabilitation costs. Gwala says this generosity has spurred him on and inspired him to carry on competing.
At the time, Dennis Jackson, director of the Elite Athlete Programme for KwaZulu-Natal province told the BBC Gwala was a “shining ambassador for triathlon in South Africa.”
Gwala originally got into triathlons after struggling with an alcohol addiction. Although his Olympic dreams may have been put on hold, Gwala says he will always stay true to the sport that transformed his life. His final words to his attackers? “I forgive them because the sooner I forgive them, the sooner I wake up and be strong again.”