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Incredible Ibongwe seeks to inspire

While every athlete can tell a story of a hardship or difficulty they’ve had to overcome on their sports journey, Ibongwe Mtshengu’s inspiring tale certainly stands out. And this one-armed softballer is a man on a mission.

Born and raised in the rural municipality of Flagstaff in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, young Ibongwe’s life changed dramatically at just 11 years of age. Trying to intervene during a domestic dispute between his mother and stepfather, young Ibongwe was caught in the tussle, resulting in a fractured arm. The plaster of Paris used on his arm was applied too tightly at the hospital, restricting the blood flow and causing irreversible damage. Four days later, Ibongwe’s arm was amputated.

This horrific setback, however, arrived at exactly the same age that Ibongwe was introduced to his now unmatched passion – softball. Picking up the sport thanks to his father who was a high school softball coach, Ibongwe refused to be hindered by the fact that he was left with just one arm.

Enrolling into a Bachelor of Social Science degree at Walter Sisulu University, Ibongwe did not waste time in joining the university’s softball team. Coach Sixolile Majezi admits he had his reservations at first but was left immensely surprised.

"At first the players were sceptical about having him on the team, but his determination and drive made them open up to the reality of having him as a teammate who gave his all to the game, just like they do," Coach Sixolile tells

"Ibongwe is a very active and talented athlete, those are the traits that shone brighter than his amputated arm. His personality is one that draws people in and does not make situations awkward because of his disability. He brings with him a unity to the team, even without trying."

The 20-year-old himself says he’s played with able-bodied teammates his entire life and feels no different than his colleagues.

"I don’t even think about it that much," he says. "Whenever ever I am on the field, I just play and do what I love."

Bringing both the sporting and academic year in South Africa to an end was a host of national university sport championships, including the annual USSA Softball Championship, which took place in the nation’s capital, Pretoria, from 4-7 December. Coach Sixolile admits he had doubts in his mind about including Ibongwe in his team, yet stuck to his instincts, and reaped the reward. Ibongwe shone as Walter Sisulu University won the bronze medal, a huge achievement for their young side.

"During the first few weeks of coaching Ibongwe, I was worried that he might need special training, but including him in the USSA Champs squad was a result of him not wanting to be treated differently and showcasing his potential," Sixolile explained. "I was in awe when we were at the tournament – the level he played at exceeded my expectations! The tournament was great and my players showed character and the zeal to win. I was not expecting to get on the podium because most of them were new players and had never played at that level before."

In his debut tournament, Ibongwe was handed the special Chairman’s Award 2023 for his efforts and found it difficult to express himself following his side’s third-place finish.

"This was my first tournament, and it was phenomenal!" he says. "It’ll forever be in my memory, but I can’t even put my feelings properly into words. It was something else!"

This is however just the start for Ibongwe, who hopes to study law in future, but not before working towards another dream first.

"I want to pursue a possible career in softball," he says. "I believe waking up everyday for something you love is the best thing you can do in your life. I will also continue with my degree, because I love that too.

"I still want to show my abilities to the world and be an inspiration to all the differently able-bodied people, to show that even if you are different, it doesn’t mean you have to give up on your dreams. As long as you are alive, you can still fight to achieve them."

Posted by Fabio De Dominicis on 15 Mar, 2024.
Source: FISU
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