By Karien Jonckheere.
If Babalwa Ndleleni had a medal for every time she had been asked to show her muscles, she would be a multiple world and Olympic champion.
But she just has to smile and patiently explain for the umpteenth time that she is not a bodybuilder but a weightlifter.
And as it turns out, she does have one very treasured medal to show for her efforts. In March Ndleleni became the first black South African woman to win a Commonwealth Games medal in weightlifting when she bagged the bronze in the 75kg division.
That’s helped tremendously in getting her community of Gugulethu to accept the fact that yes, she is a woman and yes, she can lift heavy things and is very good at it for that matter. It’s all a case of understanding what it’s all about, says Ndleleni.
“Winning a medal in Melbourne at the Commonwealth Games has made a major difference because people now understand what weightlifting is. Before some people would say ‘show me your muscles’. Some men actually took my arm and felt it, expecting me to have big muscles but now they don’t have those expectations anymore,” she explained.
“They accept me and accept what weightlifting is now that I have explained that it’s not about muscles – it’s about strength and speed and technique.
” Ndleleni was introduced to the sport when the SA Weighlifting Federation conducted a development clinic at her school in Crossroads.
“They did demonstrations and said that you could do it to lose weight or for different reasons but that it was also an Olympic sport and so that’s how I got interested,” explained the 27-year-old Capetonian.
“I didn’t know that women could do it too because I wasn’t going to a gym or anything then so I didn’t see it.
“I knew that women did bodybuilding but I also didn’t really know the difference.
“Some people ask why I do it. They ask if it’s for self defense but I tell them I do it for sport and it’s like any other sport – you don’t ask people why they run.”
Ndleleni is now relishing her new role as an example to other women in her community who would never even have considered taking part in sport.
“In my community there are not a lot of girls doing sport. Most of the time girls think they are too weak and they can’t do the things men do. They say they are too thin or just a girl or too fat,” she said.
“People need to understand that a lot of things have changed and that women are doing sport now and that they will be doing it more and more. I am one of the first from my community to be in a national team and compete internationally so I’m there showing the girls that they can do it. They are saying to themselves ‘If she can do it so can I’.”
And not only that, but the men in the area have also become more accepting of this exceptional woman who has lifted 85kg in snatch and 105kg in clean and jerk.
“Now that they understand, people like it. And especially after the Games, they now realise how different it is from bodybuilding
“Now they actually come down to the gym and watch me train and everything. And my friends and family are all very supportive,” said Ndleleni.
“My next goal is to get the gold medal at the next Commonwealth Games and I’ve got all the competitions in between now and then like the African Championships and the All Africa Games next year. I would like to qualify for the next Olympics, that would be a big achievement.” – Heartlines Features