“Don’t be surprised if in a year or two, we see him back on the world stage,” Dennis Jackson, director of the elite athlete program to which Gwala belongs, told the British news agency.
Initially thinking it was a mere robbery, Gwala was pulled into bushes by the men next to a road in Durban, on the eastern coast of South Africa. After offering them everything he had on him, they tried to cut off his legs with a chain saw but stopped when they could not cut through bone.
“He thought they were coming to rob him, stopped and gave them his phone, but they didn’t want his phone, didn’t want his watch or bicycle,” Sandile Shange, the 26-year-old athlete’s training partner, told the BBC on Wednesday. “They dragged him to the side of the road to some bushes, took a saw and started cutting his legs. They kept on cutting and when they got to the bone, because the saw was not that sharp, the saw got stuck. When they saw it was getting stuck they started on the other leg.”
Gwala managed to drag himself to safety and after the early-morning attack. “When he spoke to doctors, they said they will be able to save his leg,” Shange said, “and he will be able to walk and run again, but it is a long walk to recovery.” Shange told South Africa’s News24 that doctors had said “the blood flow is good, the only problem is with his tendons.”
Jackson said the motive for the attack is unclear.
The attack stunned Jackson and the South African athletic community.
“I haven’t quite got to grips with exactly what happened,” Jackson said on Wednesday. “It seems like they pulled him into a bush while he was on a training ride. They had a chain saw and went for one of his legs‚ which is the concerning part. We don’t yet know how far they went in‚ whether they were trying to cut it off‚ or what the circumstances are. All we know is that Mhlengi is alive‚ he is talking and that he is under medical care. We don’t have the whole story as yet.”
Henri Schoeman, South Africa’s 2016 Olympic bronze medalist in the triathlon, called the attack “absolutely disgusting” and tweeted that he hopes the incident causes South Africa to “make cycling safer” on the country’s roads.
Donovan Geldenhuys, another South African triathlete, tweeted that Gwala, who was to compete in the South African national championships in two weeks, is “a true gentleman. I can’t even imagine this happening. It’s sickening! Praying for him to heal up quick.”
According to Jackson, Gwala overcame drug and alcohol addiction and represented South Africa at international competitions in Chicago in 2015 and in the Netherlands last year.
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