When Ntando Mahlanguarrived in the world on 26 January 2002 in Mpumalanga, South Africa no-one could predict how his life would pan out.
Born with hemimelia, a congenital deficiency which affected the growth of the lower part of his legs, he was confined to a wheelchair. The challenges over the next few years would continue to test the strength of Mahlangu, as he faced up to the prospect of moving away from his hometown to be educated.
Nearly 300km away, he left everything he knew embarking on the long trip west to attend a disabled school in Pretoria, just north of the capital Johannesburg. It was at the age of 10, when Mahlangu’s life was truly revolutionised after meeting Johan Snyders, the founder of Jumping Kids, whose dream was to supply the latest prosthetic limb technology to children in South Africa.
“It was special because when I was fitted with blades it was the first time I walked. My birth defect meant I could not get equipment until I was 10, so I had never walked. I told Jumping Kids I wanted to run and play soccer so they gave me the blades to do this. I have other legs (for walking), but I like the blades more so mainly use them.”
Within a month of receiving his blades, he was running and while it took some getting used to, his dream of being mobile and playing sport had fast become a reality.
“It was quick (transition from receiving blades to running). I walked the first day I was fitted and within a month I could run. I was chubby then so I was not so fast, but I was mobile and having fun so it was nice.
“I like to run. My goal was to run and be active not go to the Paralympics. I got into athletics through Jumping Kids sports academy, IsAbility Sport. Our team takes part in many sports and compete at S.A. Nationals. I started to do well in track and then began to win. It pushed me to see how fast I could be. I enjoy running and that gave me the chance to go to the Paralympics. I am very lucky.”
In a whirlwind four years, he went from wheelchair-bound to the biggest stage of them all and the Paralympics was not only a chance but soon a realisation. He was somewhat an unknown entity having raced only a handful of times against his opposition and despite his age, he didn’t let racing on the biggest stage get to him.
“I didn't really think about it. I know that I can run fast and once I step onto the track to race I focus on doing my best. I don't think about where I am or who I am running against. I run against myself and try to just be faster.
That confidence shone through as Mahlangu set a new personal best to win silver in the T42 200m behind Britain’s Richard Whitehead.His gratitude to all those that had supported him was clear to see
“It was a journey to win silver. Many people helped and were involved to make it happen. I think everyone was proud and happy. I received a lot of support from my family, friends, community and the people of South Africa on my return. I had the names of the people who helped me and the other Jumping Kids on my sockets in Rio. I think they liked that and were proud of me.”
Only Whitehead has run faster than the 14 year old in the history of the event, which suggests there is plenty of untapped potential as his journey to the World ParaAthletics Championships in London begins.
“I think Richard Whitehead and I can go under 23sec. From there I don't know yet. I hope to one day hold the record for the 200m. I am young so will keep training for it. He has done a lot for para-sport and has shown that the double above knee athletes can be fast and combine that with long distance. He is a great athlete.”
Many athletes were inspired by the London 2012 Paralympic Games and Mahlangu was no different despite not being able to view the spectacle the same way as others.
“I did not get to watch much of London as we did not have access to TV. When I did see events I remember thinking that if these people could do what they were doing, then I could do what I wanted to. It was inspiring.”
The sprinter got his chance to sample the atmosphere of the Stadium at the Anniversary Games before Rio and is filled with excitement ahead of next year’s World ParaAthletics Championships back in the Stadium.
“I get homesick, but like to travel so the Anniversary Games were amazing. The crowd was very welcoming and supported all the athletes. It was a good atmosphere and I enjoyed it very much.
“I enjoyed the Anniversary Games a lot and the crowds that came to support. I also made friends with some of the British Team in Rio so I hope to see them again. I’m sure it will be better than the last time I was there. It will be my first senior world champs so I am looking forward to that.”
However, the modest Mahlangu is quick to dispel the lofty expectations about beating home favourite Whitehead in his track farewell.
“I don't think about the results. I just want to keep enjoying running. I don't want it to be a job. When it comes to racing, I want to be better than I was last year.
“Johan and I made a 10 year plan two years ago. Getting to Rio was part of that plan. Our plan is for high school, university and the next two Paralympic Games (2020 and 2024). Beyond that I don't know, but I’m sure it will be fine.”
While Mahlangu’s success on the track is indisputable, the 14 year old remains a regular teenager. He is preparing for exams, hoping to get into an acclaimed high school whilst harbouring ambitions of achieving his ultimate goal of becoming an engineer.
“I like spending time with family and friends. I hope to do well in school, like sports and am learning to be a house DJ.”
His hometown of Mpumalanga translates to ‘the place where the sun rises" and with Mahlangu fast becoming a force, there are bright horizons ahead for the prodigious talent.
Mahlangu is likely to head-to-head with fellow Rio medallists Richard Whitehead and David Henson in sessions one and two of the World ParaAthletics Championships in London next year. You can buy tickets from just £10 here.