Four years ago, when Palesa Manaleng suffered a cycling accident that left her paralysed from the waist down, she thought any chance of a career in sport was over. Today the University of Johannesburg (UJ) public relations student is a South African handcycling champion in the H3 category and planning a future that includes representing her country at a range of international para competitions.
The 31-year-old won the South African title at the national road championships in Pretoria in February – and she says she wants to build on that achievement.
“Looking ahead, I plan to represent South Africa at all major competitions, World Cups or world championships. You name it, I plan to be there and to break records,” Manaleng says.
The track athlete grew up in Polokwane before moving to Johannesburg, and she now lives in Westdene. She describes how she went through a “rollercoaster of emotions” after her accident at the age of 27.
Her bicycle brakes failed as she was going downhill and she crashed into the palisade fence around the UJ rugby stadium. She dislocated her spine, broke two ribs, punctured a lung, fractured a shoulder and sustained head injuries.
Read about what Palesa learned on her 2 200-km journey across South Africa here.
“I was angry that it happened to me and sad that I may never play sport again,” she says. “But I was also relieved that I had a second chance at life and, in the end, I came to the conclusion to live my life to the fullest and not to miss any opportunities.” Manaleng grabbed at the opportunity to play sports again.
“I thought it was the end of my sporting career, mainly because I’d never seen an athlete with a disability, aside from Oscar Pistorius, who didn’t use a wheelchair. So I was sure that my sporting days were over.”
While in rehabilitation she saw videos of wheelchair users who took part in sport and realised it was still possible for her to compete.
“Once I was discharged from hospital, I emailed possible sports clubs looking for a team to join,” recalls Manaleng. “I wrote to potential sponsors to help me purchase equipment. While doing that I would wake up every morning at 06h00 and train, going up and down my street in my everyday wheelchair.
“Sometimes I would fall because I was new to this disability thing, and motorists passing by would stop and help me back into my wheelchair as they headed to work.” Eventually she mastered the art of paracycling. She says the experience of participating in sport again had been a revelation.
“It has given me a freedom that I thought I had lost when I lost my ability to walk. It’s like learning to fly.” Manaleng cycles at Muldersdrift under coach Boetie Lourens and trains at the UJ gym with trainer Dennis Dlomo.
“My training is designed on a monthly basis depending on my work schedule. However, I train six times a week without fail. Some days I train once a day, others twice.”
Manaleng pays tribute to everybody who helped her regain her sporting pride, including the Westdene community and UJ.
“There is an entire team of people who have helped since the day of my accident, among them friends, family, my coaches and my lecturers. At times there have been total strangers. I have been so blessed to have people in my corner at all times,” she concludes.