What worrying event ended up enhancing the life of South African rugby player SEABELO SENATLA? The blisteringly fast winger, awarded the World Rugby Sevens Player of 2016 and now also playing 15-man rugby for South Africa’s Western Province and the Stormers, told KATY MACDONALD
Seabelo (25) was born and grew up in Welkom, a small town in South Africa’s Free State. He’s the middle child of a police officer father and a teacher-turned-educationalist mother. Seabelo has notched up 200 tries in sevens rugby faster than anyone else in the world.
This interview was first published by Thislife Online in 2018
Why rugby? Actually, I had decided to become an accountant as my mom kept putting the education thing on me! Growing up in a black community, soccer and sprinting were my things and I got into rugby by accident on school tours where I had to play rugby too. I ended up making under-16 provincial teams such as Griffons, then got more serious about it and was offered a scholarship at Harmony Sports Academy in the Free State. Here my mates ate, slept and breathed rugby, which instilled in me a passion for the sport.
What happened to the accountant thing? While I was at the academy I was offered a scholarship to the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein to study accounting. This made both me and my mom happy as I could play and study at the same time. But I only lasted there one year because I ended up playing sevens at national level.
Seven-man rugby versus 15s? Growing up, I always dreamt of being a 15s player but once I got introduced to sevens I stayed in it because of the development they give you as a rugby player. You need a high skill set in sevens because you’re always alone, one on one, and you get tired much easier. Sevens is tougher, you need to be strong, you need to be fast, you’re more vulnerable.
And he’s off! Seabelo breaks away from the defence in a match against England during day two of the 2018 Sydney Sevens: January 2018. ‘Sevens rugby is tough because you’re more vulnerable,’ he says | Photo: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images, courtesy of SA Rugby
Best sporting moment? Winning the Commonwealth Games with the Blitzboks in 2014. Everyone shouts for us nowadays, but in those days we weren’t so well known, we were a young team in a new era, trying to create a certain culture of which we and South Africa could be proud.
Blitzboks? Our aim is to be pioneers of greatness, to have incredible values rather than just win, to become people of principle in society. There’s a bit of cheating in the sporting world at the moment, but I don’t know what satisfaction you get if you don’t play fair: it’s so much sweeter to win when you’ve worked hard for a victory. The Blitzbok leadership is fantastic. We’re all trying to build a system of selflessness, of teamwork, of looking out for the other person and playing to make the other guy look good. That’s how we all get to shine and why the team does well: you don’t want to let your brother down, even if you’re happy to let yourself down.
It’s not just talk. We live this out on a day to day basis: we clean up our changing rooms after play, take our stuff to the kitchen, and at the airport we wait for the last guy to get his boarding pass before we go through as a group. When we arrive home, no one leaves the airport until everyone has their bags. It’s small stuff but it makes a huge difference and creates a sense of togetherness that translates beautifully onto the field.
Worst sporting moment? Fracturing my wrist in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Rio Olympics so that I had to pull out of the tournament. It was a pretty hectic moment for me. I was feeling the best I’d ever felt in my career, on top of the world and had worked so hard. The game had just a couple of seconds to go and I was about to kick when I was pushed and landed on my wrist at speed.
When the Blitzboks won their bronze medals the next day, Francois Hougaard tracked me down in the Olympics village and gave me his medal because he’d been a reserve till that day, and he said I deserved it more than him. I wouldn’t take it – he too had worked hard and had sacrificed his 15s career for this moment – but he put it down on the table and ran away! I thanked him on social media which stirred something up. The Olympic committee ending up giving him another medal! It has turned the sadness of being injured into a special memory. Also, I’m not sure what I would have bought him for Christmas to make up for that expensive medal!
Seabelo: ‘I’m an incredibly positive person’
You became a father at 17: tell us about it! It was a very hard time in my life. I was 17 and I got a girl pregnant, Mmamy. She was 15. There was no emotional bond between us and I felt the end of the world had come. I didn’t tell my parents and used to cry daily in my room and pray. I was so scared. People at school knew but I kept denying it. Eventually Mmamy’s parents came and told mine. I thought I was going to get killed by my parents but they supported me. My dad started saying that a kid is such a blessing. They were both so soft, so comforting, embracing this new chapter of my life and encouraging me to be the best father possible.
When our baby was born, we called him Omphile, and he grew up in our house from the moment he was born. Mmamy visits whenever she likes, and has him for the weekend and some of the school holidays. Omphile is turning eight this year and I see him as much as I can, whenever I get a gap. He also likes to come to Cape Town for the world sevens tournament in December. Now when I look at my kid, I remember how worried I was in the beginning. Now he’s running around like I used to run around and I get my biggest happiness from seeing him smile and knowing I can provide for him.
The whole chapter has been very spiritual for me. I had always been dragged to church but it was only through this situation that I had a personal encounter with God. Before my parents knew about the baby, when I was crying alone in my room, every single time I prayed for God to take over the mess I had made, an incredible peace would fill me. I would stop crying and feel strength that everything was going to be all right. At my weakest point, God came into my life and I started following Him. It’s so amazing that God can turn something that is so scary in your life – that you think is going to break you – into the biggest blessing ever. Omphile’s name means God-given.
Seabelo on the left with fellow Blitzbok Rosko Specman, Sydney 2018 | Photo courtesy of SA Rugby
Advice to the young? Dream big. I never thought someone could come from Welkom and play for the Springboks but it happened. Don’t be contained, change your mindset and choose to be great, once you’ve made your choice people can’t stop you. Ok so you can’t run fast or play rugby, but everyone can do something to set themselves apart. Use whatever you have to get what you want. Greatness is a choice. I also encourage people to link their purpose with their passions.
What do you think life is about? Discovering yourself and why you’re on this earth. I know many people don’t think there is a maker or if they do believe in a higher power, they don’t seek to connect with it. But for me, the biggest thing is to build a relationship with my maker, to find out why He made me, and why He made me like this, and to help other people understand this too. I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without God’s guidance and help and I believe He can help you unlock happiness and inner peace. I recently spoke at an Alpha course launch party where I encouraged people to investigate Christianity and seek more: it’s a wonderful thing to do, you can never know enough and it’s not going to hurt you!
How do you connect to God? I can connect doing lots of different things. I might be driving my car and shuffling my playlist: if a song comes on about God, a certain scenario might come to my mind and I will start praying. Or I see a beautiful sunset and feel connected. But my main way is I try to read the Bible, talk to God about what I’m going through or what I need, and be thankful about what he is giving me.
What drives you? I strive for excellence, to be exceptional in whatever I do, it doesn’t really matter what it is. For example, I’ve been blessed with speed but not with ball handling: that’s something I’ve had to really work at. I believe that everyone can decide to find something that they can work on to separate themselves from the crowd.
Do other players pull your hair? Guys have done it a couple of times as intimidation. In the beginning I was immature in the sport and got angry, which was exactly what they wanted: to distract me. As I’ve matured I’ve learnt to smile back, which irritates them. So I’m manipulating them at their own game!
Good hair day: ‘Sometime guys pull my hair in a match to intimidate me, but I refuse to get distracted,’ says Seabelo | Photo: Nicky Elliott
Biggest regret? Not having enough time to spend with my family. It feels as if a lot of people want a piece of me, want to know my story and how I have managed things.
People who inspire me are… American rapper J. Cole. I relate to what he speaks about. He paints pictures about people’s lives, their problems and their stress, but at the end knows how to bring hope: that’s my type of person, I’m incredibly positive too. I love hip hop and the art of rap. Also, Cristiano Ronaldo. For me, he’s the best soccer player in the world and I love the way he thinks in terms of stretching his sports career, eats well, trains hard and tries to be as good as he can be.
Guilty pleasure? Coca-Cola!
What keeps you awake at night? A lot of ideas. There’s so much I want to do so I try to iron things out in my head and bring structure to my thoughts. I’m interested in business and also want to start an NGO to encourage young people, probably high school age kids, which is when life really changes and you need to make the right choices.
How do you get yourself to keep going in a match when everything seems to be going downhill? Sometimes you do feel down but it’s all about attitude, the belief that you can still do more. I’ve done a lot of stuff and failed: failure is part of life and you’re going to fail till you die. But it’s that thing of really wanting to come back stronger. If you get knocked down seven times, you need to get up eight.
Your future? My ultimate dream is to play 15s rugby and be a Springbok. After rugby, I don’t see myself in an office but my mom is still pushing me to look at other studying avenues like marketing and maybe one day I’ll give in!
One thing not a lot of people know about Seabelo Senatla is… I love sleeping