Rowing leads to UN leadership camp for South African
Athenkosi Hlekani is from the small South African town of Port Alfred. As a 16-year-old he took a learn-to-swim course. His life changed.
Hlekani’s swimming course was organised by Nemato Change a Life organisation (NCL) which helps young people to break out of the poverty cycle. NCL also organises rowing and Hlekani joined the team. He quickly became one of their top rowers, earning himself a full sports bursary at the University of Johannesburg. Hlekani’s involvement came to the interest of organisers of the United Nations youth leadership camp and earlier this year Hlekani travelled to Qatar to attend the camp.
World Rowing spoke to Hlekani about his rowing and leadership experiences.
World Rowing: How did you first get involved in rowing? What attracted you to the sport?
Athenkosi Hlekani: When I started, I didn’t even know I was going to row, let alone know what rowing actually was. Jan (Blom, Hlekani’s mentor and NCL organiser) started by giving swimming lessons at a local indoor heated pool. It was pretty expensive to go there so when I heard there was a guy offering it for free, I went. I passed the swimming lessons and he took us to a lagoon where we saw rowing boats and jumped in one for the first time. Jan really made it fun and that kept us coming back.
WR: Was there some point (or event) when you said to yourself, ‘this is the sport I want to continue with’?
AH: Yes there was; I don’t remember the actual point but there was. I was really never good at other sports like rugby and soccer as I am quite small (in my matric year I was 55kg standing at 173cm). When I got in the boat and beat a couple of big guys, it felt good.
WR: What do you think motivates you to do well?
AH: It’s about the will to do better, to better yourself, your own and the circumstances of others.
WR: Being part of the leadership camp in Qatar, where do you think your leadership skills have come from?
AH: Since I started rowing I’ve had the pleasure of holding numerous leadership positions in and out of the rowing environment. These skills though were only realised once I started rowing.
WR: How do you use your leadership skills in your rowing involvement?
AH: An example would be that I was the men’s captain of the University of Johannesburg Rowing Club last season and going into this season; still leading, guiding and helping nd being that example novices and other members hopefully look up to.
WR: Name a couple of top things that you learnt from the youth leadership camp.
AH: What really captured me was the different ways of doing things and trying to get a message across especially when coaching. Early childhood development is also another one. How one can do so much for a child at their early stages.
WR: Can you remember some good advice that your rowing coach has given you?
AH: I recall my first competitive season when I didn’t win a single race and there was one under 14 in our club who won most of his events in every regatta. I asked Jan about this and he said patience and hard work will pay off. The next season I won a race in almost every regatta.
WR: What do you think the impact of the lightweight men’s four Olympic gold has had on rowing in South Africa? And what about the influence of Sizwe Ndlovu on black South Africans in terms of their view of rowing?
AH: What they achieved is incredible and has really raised the public awareness and profile of the sport. Before you’d tell someone you row and they’d look at you like you fell out of a tree or something. At least now they have the idea. The level of competition has also increased and you find athletes motivated and believing that it’s possible to go overseas and not only race competitively but with a chance of a medal. Black South Africans are not really big on water sports but they are now aware of rowing and hopefully that will increase their participation.
WR: Are you still rowing?
AH: I row for the University of Johannesburg. Over the last couple of years I have tried to compete overseas and haven’t been successful. In the near future I’ll be focusing on coaching as well Nemato Change a Life with our big ideas of slowly making a change in our communities.