Para table tennis superstar Sthabile Mnyandu has conquered the challenges of being a burn victim and is determined to fulfill her dreams of competing in the 2024 Paralympic games set to be held in Paris.
The 25 year old University of KwaZulu-Natal Honours student – who is ranked number one in South Africa for women’s para table tennis – fell in love with the sport when she was in grade four.
Despite undergoing numerous surgeries, she hopes that with the right support, she can inspire change and show that para athletes are capable of achieving greatness.
Speaking with Faheedah Crouch, Mnyandu shares the story of how she aims to become the best in Paralympic sport.
Thank you Sthabile for taking the time to chat with us! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Sthabile Mnyandu. I’m a 25 year old University of KwaZulu-Natal student, ranked number one in South Africa for women’s para table tennis. I was just six years old when I was burnt severely in a grass fire near my home in eNdwedwe. I spent nine months in a coma after the incident and have undergone several procedures, including skin grafts on my feet and right hand.
After my long stay in hospital, I was finally discharged. My family had already found a school for me in – Ethembeni school – which is a primary school for the physically disabled and visually impaired learners. It was a very good school as what I am now is because of it. I am very fortunate to have been given the opportunity of going to school. My family pushed me for a good education despite the challenges that came with being in a boarding school; they are not cheap, but they made means for me to be in school.
“I am very fortunate to have been given the opportunity of going to school. My family pushed me for a good education despite the challenges that came with being in a boarding school; they are not cheap, but they made means for me to be in school.”
I started my grade 1 in 2005 and completed my grade 7 in 2011. During the same year, one of my teachers had contact with people from Johannesburg who ran an organization for burned children (Children of Fire) that help burn survivors in terms of operations where necessary and is based in Auckland Park. They then planned for me to go there and have my operations. One of the operations includes the tissue expansion on the head so that I have more hairline, I had two of these. Another operation includes the hand and foot contraction. Both these operations helped me because I was not able to wear shoes properly, and I couldn’t hold the racket properly when playing. Now it is better, though I still face challenges as both my feet and hands become too hot and sore.
In 2012, I started my high school at Open Air school which is also a school for the physically disabled and visually impaired learners. During the first term of grade 8, I had to go to Johannesburg and have my operations there. I missed a lot of schooling, but this did not hinder me enough because I performed well during the first term, so Mr. Gabela, the deputy principal, made it possible for me to start grade 9 when I came back in 2013 to commence with my grade 9, though I had missed the rest of the second, third, and forth term of grade 8.
Not only did these schools help me grow academically, but they also helped me more into the sport, and personally. They taught me about the challenges of life, though I was based at boarding establishments and not familiar with the outside world, they still taught me about everything that I would encounter when I do get out into the real world. Now I am a university student doing my honours and I am doing pretty much good. I have not failed in anything… and I am working towards getting the highest degree.
Where does your love for sport come from?
My love for sport comes from primary school. We played a lot of sport. We had extra murals every week and everyone had to be at least in one. I did track and field, football, and table tennis. I then had to choose one because I could not do all because I also had school.
What sparked your interest in table tennis?
My table tennis life started when I used to pick up balls for the ones that were already in it. I was doing grade 4, in 2008. It sparked my interest when I saw the other guys played. I then learned everything and said to myself “I want to try this. I want it to be me one day” and here I am, even though I am not where I want to be. I still want to go to big stages like the Commonwealth Games and/or the Paralympics games… but this can possibly happen if I get MORE support, and maybe have sponsors as I do not have. As much as it is up to me to excel, but at the end of the day any athlete performs better when being SUPPORTED and/or SPONSORED.
If not table tennis, then what sport do you think you would have pursued?
I would DEFINITELY have pursued football.
Not only are you an athlete but you’re also a university graduate, what is your major and why did you choose to study that?
I am currently completing my Honours in Criminology and Forensic Studies (CFSD). In my undergraduate years I majored in CFSD and Psychology. I chose this field because I am very interested in how criminals think. I like to get into their minds. I want to know why they commit crimes; the drive behind it. How they can be helped if the problem lies in their mindset. But the important reason is the reduction of crime. I would like to see a free-from-crime South Africa, and I would like to be part of that team that helps reduce crime in South Africa.
How have you balanced your career as a table tennis player and a student?
I believe if you love something you will make time for it. I love both schooling and playing table tennis. Since my first year I decided that I would attend classes less and make time to go to the gym and training, and to tournaments. But I would have to consult with my lecturers to make sure that I am not left behind on anything. I have also cut my sleeping hours to make sure I cover my schoolwork because most of the time during the day I am at the gym and on Saturdays at trainings.
You are a burn victim and the incident happened to you at a young age, has that affected you in the way that you view yourself as an athlete and life in general?
It took me a very long time to adapt. But being at school for the disabled help me accept everything, even though I still face challenges when I must go back to my hometown. ALL EYES ON ME. But I fight it every day, I try not to view myself as a different athlete. In fact, sport has helped me gain confidence. I minimize going out to the public because people will always stare and ask questions which I don’t like answering because I don’t want to go back to what happened. But there is nothing one can do. I just must be strong, accept life and move on… and do what God assigned me to do which is to shine in everything that I do, and I know He’s still got more plans for in this worls. What happened to me was and is also still His plan. I just must accept everything. I LOVE being an athlete. I know I inspire a lot of women who are scared to get in it, and that is my plan; TO INSPIRE!
You missed the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, what are your plans moving forward?
I would like to see myself in the 2024 Paralympics stages. My plan is to work hard and dedicate myself more. I have been provided an opportunity to do that. I am in the Elite Athlete Development Programme (EADP) and this gives me a chance work towards being the best and perform at my best. I am hoping I get sponsors that can help me in terms of going to tournaments because most of the time I miss tournaments because of financial issues. No one to pay for transport and accommodation. But I am hopeful that there is something and I can keep my seat as the number one Para female table tennis player in South Africa. I am planning on giving myself more time at the gym for training since I am doing less modules.
You are part of the Elite Athlete Development Program. What has being part of such a program done for you and why do you think such programs are important?
It has helped me in terms of my fitness during the games. I joined it in 2018 and I saw the results when I went to the Region 5 games in Botswana, I received gold, whereas the year before (2017) I had received silver. This program has helped me in terms of readiness. I am always ready for tournaments because I am always fit physically and mentally.
Such programs are important for me because they help athletes grow into the sports. They help us to be the best athletes that we can possibly be and perform at our best.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to be in the program. It makes me be eager to go to tournaments because I am always ready for anything.
The Prime staff also make it very easy for us as athletes as they are always willing to help us.
What changes do you hope to see in para sport?
More opportunities for para players to compete in tournaments and more sponsorships, and financial assistances for players.
What do you think of the gsport initiative’s impact on women’s sport?
It is a good initiative because it helps women grow into sports and help sports women cross the barriers of stigmatization because there is stigma that sports are for men which is not true. So, I think gsport is doing a very good job in helping women cross these barriers.
I think this initiative will also help sportswomen like us who aren’t recognised become recognised by society which will help us get more the assistance we need.
Where can our audience find you, should they want to follow your journey?
I am available on social media platforms:
- Facebook: Sthabile Mnyandu
- Instagram: sthabile_francisca
- Twitter: @Stha_Francisca
What is your greatest ambition?
To be the best that I can possibly be. Be better than yesterday. To commit to working on myself daily, without excuse, directing my thoughts on learning how to control myself better, manage my emotions, love fuller, be kinder, learn more, and to work towards my goals so that I build myself an empire that I will be happy with.
Para table tennis superstar Sthabile Mnyandu has conquered the challenges of being a burn victim and is determined to fulfill her dreams of competing in the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games. Photo: Supplied