It was in a hotel parking lot in the middle of the Coronavirus hard lockdown in South Africa when fencer Nomvula Mbatha realised how powerful her Olympic dream is, and how she will stop at nothing to achieve it.
In that parking lot, as her dreams of representing South Africa at the Tokyo Olympics took yet another unexpected turn – this time through a global pandemic – Mbatha made her decision. “I had to keep the dream going,” she says.
It was a dream she had been fighting hard to keep alive, especially when at the start of 2020 she was staring at the prospect of not being able to afford to travel to the Olympic qualifying championships in Egypt. After reading of her plight in the newspapers, Vodacom announced they would support Mbatha financially to travel to Cairo that April, as well as fund the coaching sessions she needed to prepare her for this qualifier and the new kit she required as standard international competition kit.
And just as soon as that door opened, it was slammed shut by the global pandemic. The qualifier and the Olympics were postponed until 2021. The good news for Mbatha is that this April she will indeed travel to Cairo with Vodacom’s support and resume her quest to qualify for the Olympics, which she will do if she wins gold in the Senior Women’s Sabre.
“I’m excited but also nervous. I’d say I’m 25% excited and 75% nervous. I believe I will qualify. But I’m also just so grateful for the support from Vodacom. Since all the media exposure and their help, I’ve had so many people asking me about fencing and wanting to get involved. It’s also brought more exposure for the Soweto Fencing Club, and my teammates there are just as grateful for this.”
The hard lockdown in South Africa and the obstacles she’s had to overcome to this point have convinced her even more how badly she wants that Olympic dream.
“It was tough to deal with and I wasn’t happy about it when the lockdown happened and everything was postponed, but I decided to turn it into a positive,” she says.
At the time of the hard lockdown, Mbatha was busy with her studies through the FIE (International Fencing Federation) to become a coach.
“I was based at the Sierra Hotel in Randburg. I was there with other fencers from Botswana, Kenya, Egypt and Mauritius. When lockdown happened, the hotel was empty. So I said to them, we’re going to practice in the hotel parking lot. There are no cars so it’s perfect. We’ll fence against each other in the parking lot. I used the time to train harder and focus more on my studies.”
“We were up at 6:30am every morning, and by 7:00am we would go running. Then we’d come back and fence in the parking lot. After that we’d go back to our rooms to rest, and in the afternoon we’d go for a run again.”
She completed her studies and is now, at the age of 23, the first Black female fencing coach in South Africa. Coaching is another part of her dream.
“The first part of my dream is to go to the qualifier, win gold and make it to the Olympics. And then I want to coach and get more women involved in fencing.”
Mbatha’s journey to this point is already an inspiration. While attending Ekuthuleni Combined School in Diepkloof Soweto, Mbatha discovered that she wasn’t good at netball and decided to try a new sport that had been introduced at the school. Fencing.
“When I told my parents I was doing fencing, they had no idea what I was talking about. Then they saw it and said it was too dangerous. But now they are comfortable with it. They are very proud of what I’ve achieved. But I was never a natural. I had to train harder than others. But I saw that the more training I did, the better my results. So that’s been my approach. To always be positive and train hard.”
If Mbatha makes it to the Olympics, it will be an incredible story. “I believe in staying positive, because positive energy attracts positive things,” says Mbatha, who simply refuses to give up on her dream.
A dream she’ll carry, from a parking lot, to a podium.
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