“I want to buy my child a house so I can show the community that even if you are disabled you can be a sportstar and do something better with your life. You can be a role model and someone that people look up to.” This is the hope that sport has given 31-year-old adaptive surfer, Noluthando Makalima. Makalima was born with cerebral palsy, a rare disorder that affects a person’s ability to move and to maintain balance and posture. She has defied challenges that most able-bodied athletes have to become a World leader in a sporting code that was only introduced in South Africa less than a decade ago.

Her silver medal finish for Team South Africa at the International Surfing Association World Paralympic Championship in Los Angeles last December promised to open up a wave of recognition which would hopefully turn into sponsorship and funding, however, Covid-19 put a stop to any momentum her achievements shone on her profile. Enter the 2020 Momentum gsport Awards, where Makalima was awarded with the Minister’s Recognition of Excellence Award and a second chance to put the glimmer back on her fledging career.

“My heart is still popping, even now,” she jubilantly said to gsport a week after the event. “I can’t believe I won the Ministerial Award; it is just amazing. I was so happy, I couldn’t even explain my happiness, I felt like crying, screaming and shouting to say thank you to God and to myself. I can’t believe I am an award winner.

“I can’t surf, go to the gym or do anything to advance my career. I am so thankful to the gsport community and government for this platform to celebrate some of my achievements.” – Minister’s Recognition of Excellence Award recipient, Noluthando Makalima

“Covid has been tough,” she admitted. “I had hoped that my silver medal win at the World Surfing champs would be able to grow my profile so that I could be able to get funding and sponsors for future tournaments. Since Covid, all I can do is stay home. I can’t surf, go to the gym or do anything to advance my career. I am so thankful to the gsport community and government for this platform to celebrate some of my achievements.”

Makalima’s attitude on life resonates with the theme of the current Netflix Original Documentary, Rising Phoenix, which looks to break stereotypes that have overshadowed elite athletes with disabilities for many generations. The documentary delves into the lows of insecurity, uncertainty, discrimination and lack of self-worth to the highs of perseverance, courage, sporting excellence and the resolute will to win at all costs; an ebb and flow many athletes have had to face during some part of growing up with a disability or competing on the world stage of the Paralympics. The elite athletes who are profiled demonstrate the hard work that is put in to their craft, the sacrifices made and the persistent determination to succeed. Their disability doesn’t define them, they define it. That is the same philosophy that ‘Thando’ leans on as she navigates her way through life.

The single mother was introduced to the sport by the Siyaphakama Development for the Disabled Association in 2014, a support group aimed at giving disabled members a lease on life in spite of their daily challenges. Before the pandemic, the Khayelitsha resident was slowly making strides to change the perception about adaptive surfing and her disability to her stigma-ridden community and broader public.

“Siyaphakama played a big role in my life. I wasn’t aware of any sport that I could take part in as a disabled young woman. My life was a mess, my mom had recently passed away and I didn’t have any support at home. They played a role that I will never forget in my life. Hopefully one day I can play the same part that.

“I went to so many sponsors and people asking to get funds and sponsorship, but people didn’t understand how I was surfing in my current physical state.” – Makalima on her disability.

“People don’t know about our sport,” she explained. “I went to so many sponsors and people asking to get funds and sponsorship, but people didn’t understand how I was surfing in my current physical state. People assume just because I am disabled, I should be at home and not in the water. There is also a perception that this sport is only for white people but my determination to fight for my dream allowed me to get to America. I have a good support group with my coach, mentor, family and friends.”

Getting to the World Champs in the US was no easy accomplishment for Makalima. She had no funds to make the trip, but a country-wide crowdfunding initiative ensured she raised enough money to travel- even a mugging outside of her gym days before leaving for the event could not stop her. Her determination and unrelenting ambition to achieve her goals kept her focused.

“It was my first time flying overseas and my first time taking part in a para-surfing competition,” Makalima, who first entered the water in 2014 said. “Everything there was new to me. It was the first time competing in front of a big crowd, even though I took part in the SA games in Durban, it wasn’t as big as it was in America. My wish was to win gold, but I will continue working hard to make sure I get gold the next time.”

Makalima says more needs to be done from government and federations to educate the community about the sport and the change it can bring to lives. Her appearance on TV and newspapers following the gsport Awards’ live broadcast has given her community some insight into her talent and capabilities.

“People think that if you are disabled you can’t do anything, let alone play sport,” she said. “Even in the township, when they saw me on the newspaper people were shocked to know I was surfing. People can’t believe that I am able to surf with my disability. Hopefully in the future people will change their perception and realise that a disability doesn’t mean you can’t make something into your life. The only way to change the stigma is for government to introduce these sports into our communities and hopefully these stereotypes will change.

“I want to go out there and teach other disabled people about sports and what it can do to change your life. I also want to help other disabled people through their daily challenges; we need to come together as a community to empower each other. As a sportswoman, I want to teach other people about our sport and to talk about the challenges that we face on a daily basis.”

For now, the water remains her hope and solace. Her chance to fulfil her dreams for herself and her family. The only place where she can compete freely and openly without the daily stigmas which cripple many athletes with a disability.

“What I love the most about surfing is it helps to relax my body and mind, it helps me to enjoy life, it is my therapy.”

 

Photo 1 Caption: Noluthando Makalima pictured at the 2020 Momentum gsport Awards after receiving the Minister’s Recognition of Excellence Award at Vision View Productions in Johannesburg on Monday, 31 August 2020. Photo: gsport