At 50, veteran Paralympian Zanele Situ not ready to call time on athletics

For those who don't know, Situ is the first black South African to win Paralympic gold at the 2000 Sydney Games and is a two-time world javelin champion.

South African Paralympic and World Championship gold medallist Ntombizanele (Zanele) Situ. Picture: Instagram/za.nele57.

JOHANNESBURG - Ntombizanele "Zanele" Situ, is a name that should be known in every household in South Africa but isn't.

A legend in her own right, Situ, at 50-years-old, was the oldest member of Team SA to compete at the Tokyo Paralympic Games earlier this year.

This was her sixth Paralympic Games, and she’s a four-time medallist – two golds in the javelin in 2000 and 2004, silver in the discus in 2000 and bronze in the javelin in 2016.

For those who don't know, Situ is also the first black South African to win Paralympic gold at the 2000 Sydney Games and is a two-time world javelin champion.

"While this was an important milestone in Para track and field for SA, for me, race was not a big factor. What was important was appreciating that anyone can get there and equally be celebrated for their athletic performance. What I was proud of, however, was being a beacon of hope for others back home" said Situ told Eyewitness News.

At the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, the veteran was handed the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, which is handed to two athletes, a male and a female, who best exemplify the spirit of the games.

This award is for Paralympians who not only achieve sporting excellence but also who inspire and excite the world. Situ is one of only two South Africans to receive the honour; Natalie du Toit received it in 2008.

The woman who hails from Kokstad was 11-years-old when she acquired her disability - she experienced weakness in her legs which resulted in an inability to walk. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis in her spine, which left her paralysed from the waist down.

"When I was younger (about 11-years-old) I felt ill and overcome with extreme fatigue. I was rushed to hospital and even after many medical examinations, there was no conclusion as to what my condition was," Situ recalled.

Situ said that she had always loved sport and after acquiring her disability, she took to para-sport and participated in seated throwing events such as javelin, shot put, discus and table tennis.

"I have always loved to play and watch sport. When I started track and field athletics, I did not aspire to compete at elite level. Through hard work, however, I have managed to compete at the Paralympic Games (among other events) several times. I have always been driven by my passion to participate and enjoy sport rather than being competitive."

The athlete who received the National Order of Ikhamanga Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2003 said that with all that she'd achieved this far, her most memorable moment was going overseas for the first time in 1996.

"Some high points in my career include travelling abroad for the first time in 1996 and realising that there are many other differently abled athletes globally doing amazingly in their respective sporting codes. Another one that is close to my heart, is the opening ceremony at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games. It was so beautiful to see countries coming together, everyone in high spirits and Team SA had also turned out in numbers! There were about 150 plus athletes from SA," she recalled.

Situ hit a snag in her career, struggling to make the podium at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics but she came back in 2011 to grab a bronze medal at the Christchurch World Championships. She also managed to finish fourth at the 2012 London Paralympics.

The ever-determined veteran won two more World Championship bronze medals, at Lyon (2013) and Doha (2015), both in the javelin.

At the 2016 Rio Paralympics, she achieved a personal best in the javelin, throwing a 17.90 metre mark in her third round to take her first Paralympic medal in twelve years, a bronze.

Situ had hoped to improve on her Rio performance or at least bring home a bronze medal from the Tokyo Olympics where she finished fifth.

Many athletes at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, spoke about how lockdown had affected their preparations - a lack of training camps, geographical remoteness, closure of facilities, lack of travel and lack of competition.

"While COVID-19 is a global pandemic, I feel that Team SA was faced with many challenges. We had lockdown during the athletics season of 2019/2020 and as the country moved from one level to the next, sport was the last to open its doors for us. Added to this, we also could not travel. For my team (Maties Athletics), we usually travel north for training camps in winter as it rains for two to three months at a time in Stellenbosch in winter. This past year, we missed out on field training a lot due to the weather conditions this side," Situ said.

The para-athlete feels that had the circumstances been different, in that athletes had places to train during the national lockdown, Team SA as a whole could have performed better than it did.

"Team SA did not train as well as we could have due to the national lockdown. For most of us, we do not have indoor facilities. The socio-economic issues in SA do not allow some people to train in their backyards or private swimming pools. For some, even going for a jog/run etc in your neighbourhood was not a safe option. We struggled to qualify because not only did we not have enough training time but there were also not as many opportunities to have qualifying events," Situ said.

She said a positive mindset and was hoping that that storm would soon pass while she continued to train and keeping her focus on the Paralympics.

"We had qualifying events two years prior to the Tokyo Paralympics. It was challenging, but we managed to qualify in the end. The COVID-19 pandemic threw us all a curveball, as no one knew what would happen. I could not get excited until I got there because I knew anything could change at any point," she explained.

The legendary Para-athlete said that she hoped to represent South Africa at the Paris Paralympics but the first step to that goal was the 2022 national championships.

"The current goal is to compete at nationals in March 2022 and thereafter, World Championships in Birmingham in August 2022. My hope is that conditions leading up to Paris will be better for all. On a personal front, I pray for I am working hard to qualify for Paris and improve on my performance," Situ said.

She said that she'd been blessed to have received so much support, including a much-needed new wheelchair and scooter.

"I have been blessed to have Maties Sport’s support alongside SA Sport Trust and the National Lotteries Commission. In the past few months, I have been gifted with a chair and scooter to make it easier for me to move around from home to training post the Paralympics. Last week, Mancosa SA also gifted me a wheelchair and throwing chair. I am incredibly blessed to have a support system walking the journey with me," Situ said.