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Her Rough Road To Rio

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It was a hot spring day in the suburb of Westdene with its neat tiny gardens and white-washed fences, in Johannesburg on September 10, 2014. The flowers had blossomed and the streets were filled with color. Palesa Manaleng was happy at home enjoying a hard-earned day off, two weeks after she landed a new job as a junior online journalist.

“I thought let me just stretch my legs out at about 10. I took my bicycle and messaged my friend, Nozuko, telling her I was going to take a quick cycle around and then come to her Spaza shop,” says Manaleng.

It was a snap decision to turn into Monmouth Road. Manaleng thought the steep downhill would help her pick up speed. Monmouth Road was the last place where the 27-year-old would use her legs.

“I tried to brake. They failed. I thought if I go straight I am going to go straight into the UJ stadium wall, but maybe if I turn, I will be able to take the uphill and slow down naturally. I turned too quick. I slammed into the paving and flew into the palisade fencing, head first,” she says.

A neighbor heard her body slam into the fence and came running out. Manaleng kept telling him that she needed to go, she needed to meet Nozuko. Manaleng didn’t understand why the neighbor kept saying they’ll go now, just wait a bit, an ambulance is coming. She was numb and couldn’t see the blood.

“I was conscious the whole entire time. The moment comes in bits and pieces,” says Manaleng. Finally someone called Nozuko.

“I heard my friend giggling, she hadn’t seen me yet.  When she saw me, she looked as if she was about to cry. I said ‘the brakes failed’ then I started laughing,” says Manaleng.

By the time the ambulance arrived, Manaleng’s skull was swelling into her shattered helmet.

“I only started crying when the ambulance moved my body, because the blood was filling up my lung. That’s when I started feeling the pain.”

Manaleng wasn’t in safe hands yet.

As the ambulance rushed to take her to the closest hospital, Helen Joseph, in Johannesburg, they were refused entry. The hospital was full. They had to drive her eight kilometers away to the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital instead.

“I was in the emergency room for three days, before they operated on me. I thought it was a day,” says Manaleng.

“Before I went under, my friends and family were told I wouldn’t make it out of the operating room. I wouldn’t survive the operation. When I came out, I came out smiling,” says Manaleng.

For three weeks, Manaleng clung to life.

“I was so high I didn’t know what was going on. After a while, the doctor asked me to wiggle my toes, and I said I am. Wiggle them so I can see them moving. He left the room and came back…he said ‘you are a paraplegic’, I said ‘what does that mean?’ ‘It means you may never walk again’.”

Manaleng had dislocated her T9/T10 spinal column. In laymen terms, her spine was folded like a pretzel.

“It took a while to hit me. Six weeks into being in the hospital. In my mind, I was going to walk. Then I had a spasm and it thought this is it, this doctor is a fool, and here is my leg spasming. I thought my legs were moving. I tried to move it again and I couldn’t. It’s the mind and the legs trying to connect. Your mind is saying to your legs ‘move’, and it can’t. So on its own, your leg just does what it wants. I was so upset,” says Manaleng.

At her side was Nozuko, once again.

“I started crying. Nozuko came in, despite it not being visiting hours; I don’t know how she got in. I said ‘I’m never going to walk. Please make me walk. Why can’t I walk, why can’t they make me walk. They operated on me, I am alive but why can’t I walk. I will never walk Nozuko’.”

Nozuko climbed into the bed hugging Manaleng.

“Once I was done crying she said ‘are you done now? Do you want to live? Then start living. So you can’t walk, so you can’t pee properly, who cares? Just live your life’.”

If surviving with a dislocated spine, two broken ribs, a punctured lung and a head injury was miracle enough, it took Manaleng less than one year to get back on the road.

“The worst 24 hours of my life was when they stopped the morphine. I was cold and then hot. I was itchy; it felt like bugs were crawling all over me. I couldn’t move and curl up. You feel like your stomach wants to fall out but you can’t move. I spent the whole night screaming. I was trying to bargain with the nurses. I was begging.”

Manaleng left rehabilitation on December 31.

And she came out with a dream bigger than most – to compete in the Rio Paralympics.

“I first saw the handcycle on TV. I was watching the 94.7 cycle challenge on TV, when I was in rehab. I told my physiotherapist that I would like to cycle again, but I didn’t know how to without my legs.”

“When I got home, I wrote to all the sponsors of the 94.7…The first handcycle I got onto was a second hand bike from Hilary Lewis, a South African handcyclist champion. She has won championships with it. Now I must up my game.”

“The first day I got to test it out, I was in normal traffic. Cars were stopping. People were staring at me. I was waving at them. I didn’t know what I was doing; I got stuck up on a pavement. I didn’t know how to turn. [Lewis] said just use your hands and go backwards.”

It was like learning to ride all over again for Manaleng, says Peter Motsai, Manaleng’s handcycle trainer.

“It took us three hours for 40 kilometers. On the hill, we had to stop. She didn’t know how to change her gears. The gears work the same as a normal bicycle but Manaleng was driving with one gear only. One gear the whole way. Now, I am struggling to keep up with her,” says Motsai.

On the anniversary of her accident, Manaleng was on the road again. With her second-hand handcycle, she competed with the world’s best at the UCI Para-Cycling Road World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.

“When you look at the UCI profile, under H3, I am 14th in the world. I don’t know how it works. But I’d like to find out. Out of 20-30 people. How do I get to number one? I would like to go to the Paralympics. I would like to become a world-class athlete and kick some butt. I’d also like to freelance as a journalist. I do some here and there. I think my heart is set in sports,” she says.

Manaleng is ever the optimist. Not only does she cycle, she also rows. Every day at 6AM, she can be found in the gym weight-lifting. In the afternoon, on the ergo, and in the evening hand-cycling.

When Manaleng isn’t on the road, water or gym, she enjoys reading and listening to old school music, the likes of Michael Jackson and Tracey Chapman. Her musical fandom even goes as far as to naming her bikes after her idols. Her handcycle is named Billie Holiday. The one she crashed in was called Dolly Parton.

“I named the bikes after Billie and Dolly because I enjoy their music, there is a message of heartache and love in their songs and when I ride I feel like I am going through my own journey of heartache and love with every steep hill and downhill I have a different emotion that I share with my bikes.”

The rigors of sport can be demanding but not as much as daily life, she says. Manaleng faces challenges that many disabled people struggle to deal with; the entrances to handicap bathrooms in shopping centers are too small; many buildings don’t have wheelchair-friendly ramps and worst of all are the men who grope her.

“When you’re disabled, men will act as if they own you. I will be pushing up a hill and some guy will come and touch my shoulder and ask me where my husband is. I am trying to get somewhere, if you want to help me up the hill, I am fine with that. But don’t grope me. Don’t have funny comments about where is the real man in my life. [Some men will] stop my wheelchair and demand my number to push me up the hill. It makes me want to punch someone,” she says.

It’s an uphill battle that most would find daunting, Manaleng fights it every inch of the way.

“There were worse things in life than not being able to walk,” she says with a laugh.

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