Malibongwe Cebekulu was raised in the township of Soweto outside of Johannesburg, South Africa by his single parent mother who is a teacher. Education and growth have always been important values for Cebekulu and his family. His perseverance, despite his underprivileged background, enabled him to matriculate from Jeppe High School for boys in Johannesburg to Rhodes University to study law, Latin and classics.

Cebekulu had never rowed before he set foot on the Rhodes University campus in 2012. Eager to learn new things and get involved at the university, Cebekulu joined the rowing team. At first Cebekulu says he was hesitant. His small profile was less than ideal for rowing, but after being introduced to coxing Cebekulu found his niche and quickly fell in love with the sport.

Just one year after learning to row himself, Cebekulu saw the value in teaching others and developing the sport throughout South Africa. Elected as Head of Development for the university club, Cebekulu set to work. He single-handedly developed a masters rowing programme at Rhodes University, coaching, organising and even coxing their sessions.

Cebekulu has also worked to develop rowing outside of the university. He set up a rowing club in Makana, just outside of Grahamstown. One of the primary struggles in setting up this boat club and rowing sessions, was that the local kids were not allowed on the water as they did not know how to swim. This did not dissuade Cebekuku who then worked with others to first teach the kids how to swim, before teaching them how to row and then organising regular rowing practices.

“I look forward to introducing more underprivileged children to the sport, as well as facilitating the growth of rowing in my home township of Makana," says Cebekulu. "I hope to debunk the African perception that rowing is an elitist sport for wealthy white people by making rowing accessible to persons of all racial, social and economic backgrounds. I also hope to afford the people of my township experiences they would not otherwise have experienced, such as visiting other towns, schools, rivers and dams. They should realise that, through rowing, there is more to life than that to which they have become accustomed.”

Parmigiani Spirit Award finalist Malibongwe Cebekulu © FISA

Nominated for the Parmigiani Spirit Award by his rowing club, Cebekulu says he was humbled merely to be nominated. “Needless to say, I was overcome with a host of emotions when I received an email notifying me that I had been shortlisted for the award. I was elated, honoured and grateful and, when I read the profiles of the other shortlisted candidates, very humbled,” he says.

Cebekulu will continue his work with the masters rowing programme, the rowing club in Makana township, his own coxing and rowing and this year he plans to launch a new programme to collect second-hand textbooks from graduate students to be used by undergraduate students on financial aid.

Keen to improve every faction of society, from his university, to his hometown, to his rowing club, Cebekulu truly embodies the values and ideals of the Parmigiani Spirit Award.

This is the second year of the Parmigiani Spirit Award, which was presented to James Cook (GBR) in 2013.

Following the selection of the four finalists, the panel of judges, comprising New Zealand Olympic Champion single sculler Mahe Drysdale, German World Champion and Olympian Lenka Wech, Parmigiani Fleurier CEO Jean-Marc Jacot and FISA President and Olympic Champion Jean-Christophe Rolland will now decide the winner.

The winner of the Award will receive a hand-crafted Parmigiani Fleurier watch and the rowing club of the winner will be presented with a custom-made new Filippi racing eight boat. For rowers in some countries (such as the United States where NCAA regulations apply), the awards will be adjusted to conform with national eligibility regulations.

A video detailing the award can be found here.