Zanele Situ has cemented her place among the nation’s Paralympic icons.
Four-time Paralympic medallist Zanele Situ in action. Picture: Gallo Images
For more than two decades, Zanele Situ has been an inspiration and a consistent driving force behind South Africa’s Paralympic movement.
Born in Matatiele in the Eastern Cape, Situ moved to Lesotho with her family as a child.
When she was 11 years old, a tuberculosis infection was discovered in
her spine. After spending three years drifting in and out of sleep in a semi-coma, she was left paralysed with a spinal injury which resulted in her becoming wheelchair bound.
When she was told by doctors she would never walk again, Situ admitted she was devastated, as she enjoyed competing in sport.
Once she moved to Umtata to attend a school for children with disabilities, however, she learned to fight for herself and chose to stay positive.
“I decided to keep trying and never give up,” she recalls in the motivational book ‘Zanele Situ: My Story’.
“If you have a disability, you can still do something you love, and I love to see how far I can go.”
Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Situ returned to competitive sport, and after leaving school she blossomed into one of the country’s most iconic Paralympic stars.
Turning out in the F54 classification for athletes who compete in field events from a seated position, she burst onto the international scene when she won gold in the javelin throw at the 1998 IPC World Championships in Birmingham, at the age of 27.
Two years later, at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, she again won the javelin final – making history by becoming the first black South African woman to secure a gold medal at the quadrennial Games – and she displayed her versatility by earning silver in the discus throw.
Extending her impressive form, Situ went on to win her second world title in the javelin throw at the 2002 IPC World Championships in Lille.
And in 2004 she shone again, retaining her title at the Athens Paralympics.
Unable to produce a consistent challenge against younger contenders among the global elite, Situ struggled somewhat over the next decade, and while she earned medals at the World Championships, she missed the podium at the 2008 and 2012 Paralympics.
Bouncing back, however, she took bronze in the javelin final at the
2016 Rio Games, returning to the podium after a 12-year absence as she flaunted her impressive longevity.
In 2017 she went on to grab bronze at the IPC World Championships in London, earning her seventh career medal at the global showpiece at the age of 46.
Recognised for her efforts over the years, Situ received the Order of Ikhamanga in silver in 2003, for her contribution to SA sport, and at the 2004 Athens Paralympics she was the female recipient of the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, presented by the International Paralympic Committee to athletes who “best exemplify the spirit of the Games by inspiring and exciting the world”.
She also carried the national flag at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Paralympics, in her fifth appearance at the quadrennial Games.
Still rated among the country’s best Paralympic athletes, Situ hopes to pass down the lessons she has learned to her daughter Azamazi.
Persistently reminding herself of the decision she made in her youth, Situ refuses to be held back by the challenges she has faced.
“My motto is: keep going, follow your dreams and never give up,” she says.
“That is what I teach my little girl.”
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