Average read time: 5 minutes.
Talking over Zoom less than a week since he touched down from Tokyo, I’m relieved to find that 26-year-old Lwazi, despite his great success as an athlete, is humble, down to earth, talkative, intelligent and just an all-round great guy.
Tell us about your journey on becoming a professional water polo player?
At school at St Stithians in Johannesburg, it was too hot for cricket, so I thought I’d check out the water polo tryouts. I liked that it had a similar goal-scoring structure to soccer. I tried out as goalkeeper, as I wasn’t the strongest swimmer.
In Grade 7, I played for Gauteng. I was just kind of following my friends and didn’t really realise my potential until later. I learnt quickly about defensive mindfulness and played to my strengths. I was blessed to go on tours and I became more committed to the sport, and my passion grew. I made the National Team in 2013 (when I was in Matric). In 2016, my team and I went to Italy for the Olympic qualifiers, but unfortunately, we didn’t make it then.
How did it feel to be part of The Olympics in Tokyo?
It came out of the blue! When we qualified, the feeling was just “wow!”. South Africa hadn’t competed in water polo at The Olympics since 1960. The Olympics is a rare once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to measure yourself against the greatest.
When you’re in the pool, you don’t feel overwhelmed. I tried get into my natural relaxed state. You play your game and forget the subtle reminders everywhere that you’re at The Olympics. I dreamed about this for a long time.
Did Covid put a spanner-in-the-works for training for the Olympics?
Covid made it difficult to get everyone together to practice. We were more worried about getting Covid than training as a team, so we were training in fragments. I would have liked a bit more training time. When The Games got cancelled in 2020 because of Covid, it made me want to train more and pushed me to work harder for this year.
Did you ever think you would make it this far?
No, I honestly never thought I would get here. But, I’ve have been driven since the first senior mens’ tour. I thought the World Championships was the highest achievement possible. Also, it’s been much harder for those of us in Africa to compete at this level because of funding.
How do you feel about the team’s performance at The Games?
We played 5 games and it was a tough pool of teams. Italy was our first game and we were really nervous. We wanted to make a big impression. As we felt more comfortable and had patience, we worked through the process. It was close. Ultimately, Italy’s experience and expertise shone through. Our team doesn’t have the luxury of going overseas to play all the time and we self-funded all our training camps.
How do you deal with the disappointment of not winning?
I always take a step back for reflection and ask: ‘How was my performance?’ I analyse any mistakes after the game, see where I need to do better and work on that. I shake it off quickly. In my private life, I try and see things holistically. Mistakes happen. I’m learning from them. This is the measure of your growth as a person.
How do you balance your Masters in Sports Science and your professional career as an athlete?
At Stellenbosch University, my office space is right next to the sports facilities, such as the pool and the gym so that makes it easy to train. Water polo can get intense, but I make sure to find time between my studies to hang out with friends and my girlfriend on the weekends (at the Sea Point promenade and Mojo Market) and I go to Joburg to see my family when I can. It’s important to me not to lose bonds.
Tell us about the pressure of being the captain of the team.
I never expected to be captain. I was told that the way I impact the game, the energy I give off and the fact that people listen to me, make me a good candidate for being a captain. It was an amazing feeling! My focus is always on what is best for the team and the responsibility can be quite scary. But I had a great vice-captain and the coaches there to guide me.
Who is your mentor?
My dad. I got to the stage where I thought water polo was too much and my dad urged me to keep on playing. He taught me that hard work reaps benefits.
What’s your advice for young athletes?
Have resilience, nothing comes easy. There are a lot of obstacles to overcome. Keep working hard. Stick to your guns. Be goal driven. Never give up.
What series do you watch?
Tell us something nobody knows about you.