After early success, Ntando Mahlangu has now discovered his reason for running

The 19-year-old sprinter fuels his mental strength by competing for his community and his country

At 14, Ntando Mahlangu ran record-breaking times as one of the youngest participants in a major international track and field competition. Given his success, many would be surprised to learn that the teenage sprinter was not even able to walk before age 10. But fortified by the optimism and resilience he developed during his youth in South Africa, Mahlangu overcame the odds and, in the process, discovered the key to his athletic success. 


“Mental strength has played a massive role in what’s made me successful as a Paralympian, and it’s important to the type of Paralympic athlete I want to become and who I want to be one day,” he said. 


Born with fibular hemimelia — a birth defect that prohibits development of the leg below the knee — Mahlangu spent most of his childhood in a wheelchair. He occasionally struggled to navigate life in the rural South African communities in which he was raised, as people with impairments were not always accepted. That’s why when 10-year-old Mahlangu was offered the opportunity to improve his mobility by amputating both legs at the knee in 2012, he eagerly agreed.  


Shortly after the operation, Mahlangu received his first set of running blades and realized what he could do. His confidence and speed improved with each step, and he decided to take up track and field training. In 2016, he represented South Africa in international competition, finishing second in the men’s T42 200-meter race — less than four hundredths of a second behind the defending champion — and setting a new African record. In 2017, he secured another second place win at the World Championships, while dominating the World Junior Championships with four gold medals and two new world records in the men’s T42 100 meters and 400 meters. Most recently, Mahlangu took first place in the men’s T61 200 meters at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships before the pandemic paused competition in 2020. 


Despite his steady stream of victories, Mahlangu has also faced challenges during training and competition. But when obstacles arise, he draws on his mental toughness, reminding himself of the reason why he runs.


“One thing that truly helps me is that I always think about how I’m not doing this for myself, but to create opportunities for others and to represent my country. That means everything to me. You realize it’s bigger than you, and that’s what drives and motivates me to keep pushing.”

Ntando Mahlangu

Mahlangu truly began to understand the honor of competing for his communities through participation in Netflix's "Rising Phoenix" documentary. The film — which famously depicts Mahlangu racing a cheetah — spotlights the lives of nine inspirational athletes and explores the history and impact of sport for those with disabilities. Though some international sporting tournaments can trace their roots to ancient Greek traditions, competition organized specifically for those with disabilities only began to emerge within the last century. 


As Mahlangu prepares for competition this summer, he does so with these learnings top of mind, aiming to increase awareness of the efforts of all athletes through his performances on the track.


“Para-athletes are athletes who are putting in the work and have massive goals, but yet people don’t always recognize that,” he said. “The documentary explains a lot about what Para-athletes go through, and it was important for me to be involved in it so that I can also put the message out there. I just want to inspire and help others that come after me.”