Josia Thugwane went from extreme poverty to becoming the first black man to win an individual gold medal at the Olympic Games for South Africa, motivated every stride of the way by the dream of supporting his family.
JOHANNESBURG - Josia Thugwane was born on 15 April 1971 in the town of Bethal in Mpumalanga.
He had a difficult start in life, growing up during the apartheid era in extreme poverty with no schooling. But he had a natural talent.
By battling beyond circumstance and sheer hard graft, Josia beat all the odds and rose to become an internationally celebrated Olympian and a hero to the people in Nelson Mandela's new democracy.
Josia’s dream was a simple one: He wanted to support his family and give them a better life -- a dream shared by millions of South Africans.
But how he would achieve this dream he did not know, until one eventful Sunday when he was 17 years old.
Josia sat on a gate wearing a pair of battered old casual shoes, a crumpled white shirt and frayed formal trousers when a group of young men ran past him in military formation, dressed in athletic gear and colourful trainers.
Having little better to do that afternoon, Josia hopped off the gate and joined the runners for 15 kilometres.
He not only kept pace with the team, but he also led from the front of the pack.
It turned out that this was the running club of the local mining operation, and after seeing what he could do, the team coach decided to help Josia get a job and join the club.
This was just the beginning of a long road for young Josia.
At the club, there was no real training schedule, no special diets or professional facilities. In his first-ever marathon, he had no concept of how long it was actually going to be, and when he came in fourth, he wasn't even aware he was due prize money, so he went home without it.
He still had a lot to learn, but his running was strong and the Olympic Games dream was beginning to materialise in his mind.
With the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996 approaching, Josia began training harder than ever, focusing on changing the fortunes of his family. Little did he know, he would change far more than that.
Finally, the Olympic Games arrived and Josia had made the cut. After the starting gun, a large pack remained together until around 35km when Josia turned up the pace. South Korean Lee Bong-Ju and Kenyan Eric Wainaina refused to be left behind and stayed with him.
For miles, there was barely anything between them, until upon entering the stadium, Josia pushed even harder to take a slight lead.
The whole South African rainbow nation was behind his every stride; and with one final push, Josia crossed the finishing line just three seconds ahead of Lee – the closest marathon finish in history.
Josia Thugwane became the first black South African to win an individual gold medal at the Olympic Games, an incredible achievement for himself, his family and the nation, all unified in glory and pride -- a moment the whole of South Africa would cherish forever.