Swimming lessons organised by Nemato Change a Life, a Port Alfred organisation designed to help young people break out of the poverty cycle, saw the then 16-year-old Hlekani give it a try. Nemato also had a rowing club and Hlekani decided to try it out. 

Less than nine years later Hlekani has become Nemato's first university graduate.

The road to this point for Hlekani included being named as the youngest and first black board member of the Eastern Cape Rowing Association. He also became the first black captain of the University of Johannesburg rowing club. He was selected as the only South African to participate in the United Nations Youth Leadership Camp and in 2013 he was shortlisted for World Rowing's Parmigiani Spirit Award for university rowers.

Hlekani says he always knew he wanted to go onto higher education. "But," he says, "when I started rowing I started looking for a varsity that offered rowing." He chose the University of Johannesburg (UJ). This decision was helped by an offer of a bursary and knowledge of their rowing team’s recent success.

A step up from rowing at Nemato, Hlekani found the calibre of rowing at UJ impressive. "The training load is huge. You have guys who have been to the junior world championships and who have been to the World Student Games. I felt like a small fish in a big tank, swimming next to a great white. And the fact that I’m not a big person didn’t help either," adds Hlekani who ended up spending most of his university rowing time in the stroke seat of the eight.

Balancing study in commerce and rowing did not come easily for Hlekani, "I procrastinate like a champ.  I think I only got it right in my last year when I started the 'a chapter a day keeps the bad marks away' method," says Hlekani.

But there is no doubt that Hlekani enjoyed the experience. "University is great fun. You almost feel like you’re on holiday until you have exams and semester tests."

Last year Hlekani was nominated for the Parmigiani Spirit Award. "My rowing manager nominated me," says Hlekani. I really didn’t know much about it at first, but as I did my research I saw it was quite a big thing and a very good initiative. It’s nice to see there are people out there making a difference and being recognised for it. That little acknowledgement makes a huge difference."

Hlekani is now working on a post-graduate degree in education and teaches part time at a Johannesburg high school. "I really enjoyed coaching and I wanted to do something meaningful - make a difference of some sort no matter how small. I think teaching is one of those professions that allows you to do that."

Nominations for the 2014 Parmigiani Spirit awards are now open. Find out more here.