Creating an African Dream
Selaotswe Tlhakuli started triathlon in 2010. Being the only black athlete at every race he attended got him wondering why his people aren’t involved in multisports. His aim is to show the black community that no one is born a star, but if you want to achieve, you have to work hard.
I grew up in the Free State, Bloemfontein and I’m currently working at the South African National Defence Force as the Physical Training Sports and Recreation officer at the South African Air Force. My first triathlon in 2010 was the Slanghoek Triathlon which I was invited to by a work colleague. After borrowing a road bike which I only rode two weeks before the race, I managed to complete the race, placing 50th overall in a field of just under 300 participants. I was just happy to finish. I then bought the bike for R4000, which at the time seemed like a lot of money.
At the beginning of 2011 the Defence Force announced they were planning to take a triathlon team to the Military Games (Military Olympics) in Rio, Brazil that August. The Games are held every four years, and it is the highest level of competition for any serving member of the military. I knew I wanted to be there and I only had seven months to prepare. I visited the My Training Day coach, Claire Horner, who then put me on a program. Many times I wanted to quit, as I had to wake up at 4am for morning rides or morning swims, but I guess it’s the price you pay to compete with the best. I finished the race in Rio in 2:15, and making it extra special was getting the opportunity to race with Olympians and the then IRONMAN world record holder Marino Vanhoenacker.
In 2012 I was determined to achieve more. I entered the BSG Triathlon series where I placed seventh overall in the 20-29 age category. The following year I was out with a dislocated shoulder after a horrible car accident. My doctor said I’ll never be able to swim again – I was devastated but I knew I could still run and cycle. In mid-2014, the SANDF was getting a triathlon team ready for yet another Military Games, this time in South Korea. I needed to be in shape so I threw myself in the pool and did what I could. I competed in a few races – the 5150 Bela Bela where I came 10th in my age group, and the Mandela Triathlon where I placed fifth in my age group. Korea came and I didn’t have such a good swim. The windy conditions on the bike and run were not in my favour. I completed the race in just over 2:16. For me to race IRONMAN I needed a good TT bike, and with the finances not so good I had to sacrifice a full year away from home in the Democratic Republic of Congo serving in the United Nations, so when I returned I could afford a TT bike. This also meant that I was not active in sports for a year, but it was worth it.
On my return in 2017 I purchased an entry level TT bike. I trained for two months and then found myself at the start line of 5150 Germiston. A poor swim, a good bike and an average run placed me 20th overall and fifth in my age group. I’d now entered IRONMAN 70.3 Buffalo City and IRONMAN African Champs for 2018, and I needed an Ultra race with no pressure. I flew down to Namibia to do the FNB Sandman Ultra Triathlon in December – it was the perfect preparation race and I placed third overall. It gave me the confidence to know I could finish any half IRONMAN distance. December is never the best time for training, as you’re automatically in relaxed mode. When the time for 70.3 Buffalo City arrived I knew I hadn’t given the race the respect it needed in terms of training and preparation, but there was no turning back now.
RACE DAY IN EL
Sometimes being self-coached you never get to understand the dynamics of the race, like the profile of the course, the nutrition and pacing. I just wanted to start and finish. The swim was relatively good for me, I think I saved too much energy for the bike but my choice of gears saw me suffer the first 20km, losing valuable time. It always takes time for me to warm up, especially after the swim. I enjoyed the return leg of the bike and might have just over cooked it. The famous word on the run is Bunkers Hill, which is just a killer. The temperature was also rising high, and the conditions were very humid. I felt good on my second lap and maintained a steady pace. The support on the road just makes you keep going because you feel like you will be failing the supporters if you stop or don’t finish – they stand in the blazing sun for over eight hours cheering us on, the best you can do is complete the race. When I saw the finish line I knew I’d accomplished what I set out to do. It has taken me six years to complete an IRONMAN Ultra distance in a healthy condition. I now have a reference point for my future races at 70.3 Buffalo City.
When I finished school, I was involved in multisport events like biathlon, biathle, swimming and water polo. The black community does not need a hero – they need motivators, mentors, someone they can look up to, someone who’s experienced multi-sports events and made a difference. I have stopped competing for myself, now I just want to inspire that one black child who one day will be at a race and say he/she wants to compete in triathlon. There are obstacles of course – finance, equipment, expensive race entries, the time needed for training and good nutrition habits. When you have a family to take care of and bills to pay, it’s not easy to take R1 000 for a race entry if your family doesn’t have food. I’m fortunate to be earning an income and be in an organisation that supports sports, as well as have support from family and a few good people and brands who have helped me to be better than what I think I am. Triathlon is one of the best sports to discover what you are really capable of achieving. My dream is to one day qualify for 70.3 IRONMAN or full IRONMAN World Champs, and that line is near.