“Xolani Brian Mtshali passed away yesterday.” This was the simple message received by Andrew Barnes and that was passed on to me. I subsequently established that he died of a heart attack.
Xolani became part of the Freedom Challenge community in 2006. Two weeks before the race he phoned me, said that he was a triathlete and that he wished to do the race. I asked him a number of questions, one of which was whether he had studied geography at school as I believed that he would then be able to read a map. He had and he could not, but I was only to find this out later.
It transpired that upon completing school Xolani had received his inheritance which was sufficient to cover one year of tertiary education. He elected rather to purchase a road bike and pursue a career as a professional athlete. In January 2006 that dream appeared to have ended when he was hit by a taxi whilst cycling, destroying his bike and shattering his leg. On admission to hospital he gave as his occupation “professional athlete”. A perceptive doctor happened to pick up on this and he was afforded special care. His leg recovered but it was only with the sponsorship by Giant of a bike and his entry into the 2006 Freedom Challenge that his professional career started to get back on track.
I have many memories of Xolani and the 2006 Freedom Challenge including his insisting on leaving the security of his riding group (of Gerrit Pretorius and Andre Britz) to go to the Darlington Dam lodge to collect the narratives that were being generated on a day by day basis to keep him on the race route (despite all the confusion between lefts and rights they succeeded in doing so and so started the Freedom Challenge narratives); his subsequent 40km detour via Patensie to Cambria giving me a cow as a landmark when he phoned me for directions; his stopping at midnight at an arbitrary farmhouse, waking the lone woman staying there and asking for a bed in the belief that by simply stating that he was participating in the Freedom Challenge would secure it, and it did; his arrival at Damsedrif to the amazement of his riding group; his tears at the prospect of Gerrit withdrawing on the ride into Prince Albert (by then the field had been reduced to four riders); his failure to find the Ladder as he was looking for a step ladder; his dogged pursuit of me up Stettynskloof; his finish in third place in 25 days and 19 hours.
From there Xolani started training under international triathlete Glen Gore. He returned to race in the 2007 Freedom Challenge with a view to securing a podium finish. His effort to chase down the lead riders after Kapokraal was frustrated when he inadvertedly ended up doing the Loutebron portage twice. He later rejoined the rest of his group as a light emerging from the fields in evening snow on the Stormberg. He lost the group again when, crossing the Perdeberg, his last remaining tube and the last remaining tube in the group punctured. He said afterwards that he stopped, he prayed, he pumped his tyre and it held. He caught the group shortly thereafter with the cry of "The Kid is back". It was at Damsedrif that Jannie Gerber issued the invitation to anyone interested to join him in chasing down Lee John and Hannele Steyn-Kotze who were then in third place almost two days ahead. In a few huge days of riding he and Xolani finally caught them at Trouthaven. In the rush to get out the next morning Xolani took a bad fall but still continued with his pursuit up the kloof. He finished sixth in 19 days 10 hours. Had he only been able to read maps.
Xolani returned in 2008 to do the Ride to Rhodes and in 2010 to do the inaugural Duzi Trail Run.
In addition, he continued to focus on triathlon and in 2011 completed the Ironman finishing in 239th position of approximately 1500 finishers in a time of 11 hrs and 20 minutes. In so doing, he achieved one of his goals of being the first development participant to finish.
In anticipation of yet another unannounced arrival, the No 11 race number with his name, was waiting for Xolani at registration in Pietermaritzburg in June 2011. He did not collect it.
There is much about Xolani that I remember. His passion for the Freedom Challenge; his willingness to learn; his incredible faith; but perhaps most of all his persistent smile.
The Freedom Challenge was enriched by his involvement and is the poorer for his passing.
The Kid is dead. Long live our memory of the Kid. - David Waddilove