A devasting rugby injury almost left Lifa Hlongwa paralysed. Fortunately, a keen eye and wiggling toe proved otherwise
It all began with a step so small it could have been measured in millimetres. “I actually didn’t even notice it myself,” says Lifa Hlongwa, the ebullient 27-year-old economics student, as he recalls the moment – barely noticeable – that sparked what has been a remarkable yet challenging personal reinvention over the past four years.
Life so often comes down to the small things, but in Lifa’s case, his story might have turned out very different had it not been for his big sister and a certain big toe.
“My older sister, Lindi, was visiting me in hospital one day after my injury,” he explains. “We were just talking when she suddenly said to me, ‘Lifa, your big toe on your left foot, are you moving it?’ I looked down and saw it wiggling. That toe was definitely my turning point.”
Celebrating such a modest act of movement was massive for Lifa, especially after being told he might never walk again. The up-and-coming flanker’s life changed one Saturday afternoon in June 2017 shortly after he ran out onto the Hutchison Park rugby field in the KwaZulu-Natal south coast holiday town of Amanzimtoti.
Playing for his Durban North-based club, Crusaders, in the main curtain-raiser, Lifa recalls his team conceding a scrum penalty and, like all good flankers, tracking across in defence behind his backline.
“I remember the play switching towards me, a tackle, and then just feeling as if all the air in my body had been knocked out of me,” he says. “I couldn’t move and just laid there.
“An ambulance took me to hospital. The doctors did X-rays but they showed there was nothing wrong. I was told it was probably just a spinal spasm and that I’d regain movement in a few days. When that didn’t happen, I knew something was wrong and it’s then that I found out that I’d dislocated my C6-7 vertebrae,” he notes.
Lifa recalls the immediate help and support provided by, among others, his home union, the Sharks, and the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund.
“That was really something,” he says. “You don’t always know who will be there for you when something like this happens, but everyone just rallied around and it gave me strength.”
I remember just feeling as if all the air in my body had been knocked out of me. I couldn’t move and just laid there.
Sister Lindi’s eagle eyes opened the door to two months of, at times painful, rehabilitation during which Lifa was able to literally take his first steps towards a new life thanks to the assistance of the Life Entabeni Hospital.
“A number of organisations then arranged for me to go to Cape Town, where I continued my rehab with the Walking With Brandon Foundation using what I can only describe as the bottom half of a Robocop suit!” he says. “Since then it’s been all about relearning how to walk.”
Lifa soon progressed from using a wheelchair, to walking with the assistance of a walking frame and thereafter crutches. These days, he gets around the University of Johannesburg campus, where he is studying towards a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom), with hiking poles or a cane.
So, just how did a Durban boy end up studying economics in Jozi?
“That’s quite a story,” he laughs. “I was in Durban one day, just watching TV with Lindi, when we saw an ad in which [well-known adventurer] Riaan Manser was inviting people to apply to join him on his Odyssey Row transatlantic rowing voyage from Barbardos to the Canary Islands, if I recall. Lindi said to me, ‘send that SMS’, and so I did.
“Soon afterwards, Riaan called me to say that I had made the top ten and invited me to the final selection in Cape Town. I didn’t make it, but got the attention of one of Riaan’s judges, Sizwe Ndlovu,” Lifa says.
Ndlovu, who rowed to Olympic silver for South Africa at the 2012 Games in London, offered Lifa a bursary to row for him at the University of Johannesburg where he is in charge of the rowing programme and coach for the South Africa Rowing Paralympics.
Lifa competes in the PR1 class over 2 000 metres and is currently part of the South African Paralympic training squad. He stays on campus in the accessible residence, where he leads a simple and focused life cantered around his studies and rowing.
“2022 will be my final year of BCom and there are so many things going around in my head about the future,” he admits.
“I’ve learnt that life changes all the time, so what works for me is that I try to focus all my energies on one year at a time because nothing is set in stone.
“That being said, I’m pretty committed to going to the 2024 Paralympics in Paris,” Lifa says. “I should be in my prime then but I’ll stick to the plan and prep for that one year at a time. Right now, I don’t even know what the 2022 season will look like, as the calendar only comes out in November.”
Before that, Lifa is thinking about perhaps doing his honours, while also engaging in another of his passions, namely hiking.
“I’ve been setting small challenges,” he says of his lifelong love for the outdoors. “I recently hiked Lion’s Head in Cape Town and I’d like to head to the Drakensberg in December, where I want to do a two-day hike.”
Lifa Hlongwa’s life story is at once tragic and inspirational. With the help of family and friends, as well as organisations such as the Players’ Fund, he has embraced his new life and is writing his own script on a daily basis.
“I accept the good and the bad that has happened to me and it gives me a reason to carry on,” he says. “The beauty of life is accepting both.”
For Life Hlongwa, what started out as a tiny toe-wiggle has become a confident stride into the future.