He was first identified by Triathlon coaches Kent and Claire Horner, professional athletes, ambassadors for Virgin Active and owners of Mytrainingday Triathlon Academy. They organised his first swimming lesson at Virgin Active in Stellenbosch and if the world seemed to be his oyster it was a very difficult one to crack open. He would need serious coaching and inspiration to continue.
In December last year, Songo met Sir Richard Branson and demonstrated his then very basic swimming skills at the Point pool in Greenpoint. Branson was thrilled to hear that Songo had completed the Ironman and warmly encouraged him to continue his training.
However, it wasn’t all smooth swimming from the start. Brett Wood, Songo’s swimming coach says when Songo first started treading water he was in the Coetzenberg indoor pool which is 2.5 metres deep. He sank. “He was in no man’s land, too far to push off the bottom and unable to use the water to come up,” says Brett. “He obviously panicked and I had to reach down a full arm’s length to pull him up.” Songo’s courage was such that he tried again immediately.
“That is his character, his determination. Someone who refuses to let failure or fear master them,” says Brett.
"There is so much more to learning to swim in an adult rather than a child. An adult comes with baggage especially if you have grown up thinking it is dangerous or something to fear.”
Brett says he spent a lot of time with Songo focussing on being comfortable; experiencing the environment of the water, sinking down to fetch things off the bottom and developing special awareness and breathing. “I knew if I could control his breathing and simple stroke focus, he could control the emotional response to fear.”
In October 2014 Songo completed his first length unaided and without stopping at the Virgin Active pool in Stellenbosch under the watchful eye of Brett. It is nothing short of a miracle that this young athlete went from zero to one of the most gruelling open water swims in the world in just six months.
What Songo thinks would be a miracle is to compete in the Iron Man World Championships in Hawaii – considered the most gruelling in the world and his mentors at Virgin Active have no doubts he can.
So what drives Songo? Not only is he mentored but he is a mentor himself. “Songo lives and leads by the example of his life," says Brett. “Every day he works with kids who are facing massive challenges to the dreams they have for their lives – and he doesn’t just say to them, hang tough you can make it happen. He says that and then goes out and shows them by his active example.”
Songo believes that if he doesn’t succeed, "I’ll drop the kids.”
By the kids he means the eighty five, 5 to 14-year- olds he teaches from 3-5 in the afternoon on a BMX track in Kayamandi. After studying tourism he decided to start a charity organisation in his home town of Kayamandi meaning “Sweet Home”. It is a vibrant community of 33 000 people who live in various structures from formal houses to shack dwellings. Approximately 70% of the community live in informal settlements without access to services such as water and toilet facilities. Unemployment is high and total income per family is significantly low.
Songo has recognised the value in creating a community for children and a safe place for them to grow and develop.
Brett says, “He is a role model those kids, and someone everybody can believe in. There is so much integrity in his example.”
Of Songo’s achievement, Brett says, “It is important to understand that even when Songo could swim laps, the challenge wasn’t over. Swimming a distance in the sea is a completely different animal. The sea is unpredictable, rough, there are currents and winds. Claire had to teach him ‘sighting’ - being able to swim and look up to see where you are going. There are no lanes to guide you. I always knew Songo would get better and better and firmly believed he would eventually be able to do the 3.8km swim but it was a huge ask – so soon!”
Patrick Hardy, Head of Strategic Partnerships and Sponsorships at Virgin Active says ‘We really understood the meaning of our role as official health and wellness partner to the Standard Bank Ironman African championship when we were able to help Songo achieve his goal of participating in the race,” says Patrick “I had heard of Songo and his legendary determination and simply by offering this extraordinary man a race entry, access to train in our clubs and a meeting with Sir Richard Branson, we felt we could play a small role in helping him to accomplish his lifelong dream of competing in this gruelling challenge. Songo has demonstrated extraordinary will power and commitment. He is a true inspiration and ambassador for not only the youth of South Africa but for all of us faced by what may seem an insurmountable challenge.”
Claire Horner, who coached Songo for the Triathlon, says “I have over 70 athletes I coach. Songo is totally refreshing – it so humbling to be involved in his dream. He is awesome – just watch this space…. “