From growing up in the ghetto to career-changing injury, Ruswahl Samaai has a habit of making life changing leaps. Now the South African is just one more big jump from making Olympic history.
It is hard to comprehend the astonishing journey of Ruswahl Samaai.
The second eldest of four siblings and raised by his single mother in the projects of Paarl, a city in South Africa’s Western Cape, poverty was a daily reality in an environment ruled by drugs and gangs.
“There were some very bad times, but some good times,” says the unfailingly polite Samaai of his upbringing.
“I grew up in a shack. When it rained the whole place would be flooded. We sometimes had to stay in the backyard of my grandmother’s place because she had shelter and we had nowhere else to go.
“Food was sometimes scarce. We were lucky my mother always put something on the table before we went to bed. There were times we had three meals a day but it would be the same meal.
“I would sometimes ask ‘why?’. I would become so frustrated, but I knew I would have to eat it or go to bed hungry.”
Yet Samaai insists he and his three siblings were luckier than most. His mother Minnie’s positivity resonated with all four of her children.
“She was the rock of our family – and still is,” says Samaai. “She always knew things were going to get better and told us so each and every night.”
It turns out mum really does know best.
Minnie had been a talented schoolgirl hurdler – Samaai recalls her regularly defeating him and his siblings in fun, family sprint races. He inherited his mother’s speed and his sprinting gifts earned him a scholarship to attend the prestigious Paarl Gimnasium school.
It was a break Samaai describes as “insane”. It was also one that unlocked the door to a whole new world.
Samaai initially struggled to adjust to the hyper-competitive sporting environment.
“I didn’t like to lose and suddenly I was losing every single race,” he explains. “I was tired of losing, so took a complete break.”
He walked away from athletics for two years, taking to the rugby field instead. But in 2007 he reconnected with track and field, this time with renewed determination, often walking 10km to and from training. He made a breakthrough in 2008, earning his first national colours in the triple jump.
Don't be afraid to face this world against all odds.— Ruswahl Samaai (@RDSamaai) June 2, 2016
But in 2010 his story took another dramatic twist. Following knee surgery he was encouraged to change his focus to the long jump. The next year, aged 19, he leapt a wind-assisted 7.80m to finish third at the South African Championships and was offered a bursary to attend the University of Johannesburg. At last he had truly found his athletics calling.
In 2012 Samaai began working with former triple jumper Jenny Kingwell as his coach. This arrangement presented its challenges. For starters, Kingwell lived more than 1000km from Johannesburg in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth. It also took some time for Samaai to be won over by Kingwell’s training methods.
“I was used to my former coach’s training and when I started it was difficult for me to trust her. I didn’t know her philosophy,” Samaai admits.
His jumping improved, but it wasn’t until 2014 when he struck bronze at both the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and African Championships in Marrakech that he was truly convinced by his coach’s approach.
“To win that medal at the Commonwealth Games was insane, because I never thought I would win a place on the podium,” he recalls.
Kingwell told him after qualifying in Glasgow that she believed he could win a medal, so in the final he “just went for it”, taking bronze with 8.08m.
“From that point on I started to trust her in so many ways and we have developed an amazing relationship. She is like a mother to me. We have this bond which is not going to break.”
Another important figure is his strength and conditioning coach Morne Nagel, who won 4x100m gold at the 2001 Edmonton World Championships. Describing himself as “so weak” when he started working with him two years ago – he could only squat 90kg – he now lifts double the weight and is strong enough to cope with the demands of performing as an elite athlete.
In early 2015 he secured his first national title with a world-leading 8.38m, only for a hamstring injury to sideline him for two months. He was left badly undercooked at the Beijing World Championships, where he failed to advance to the final.
The transport and management student returned to South Africa, maintaining his routine of combining stints on his own at the University of Johannesburg with periods in Port Elizabeth with Kingwell.
In his first ever non-outdoor competition Samaai jumped a national indoor record 8.18m to finish fifth at the Portland World Indoors
Unusually for an 8.38m long jumper, Samaai admits he is not actually that fond of jumping. “I prefer the running side,” he admits. “I can run all day long. I love it. Jumping takes up too much energy and emotion and I find I am tired because of I’m over-thinking.”
It is, however, jumping that he has proven rather good at. At the Portland World Indoor Championships in March he finished 5th with an indoor national record 8.18m. He had never competed indoors before in his life.
In April he retained his national outdoor title with a 8.34m. His Diamond League campaign has started strongly, too, finishing second in Shanghai (8.14m) and winning in Rabat with an =PB 8.38m that currently ranks him second in the world.
Despite murmurs of Samaai as a serious medal contender at the Olympics, he is not getting ahead of himself, even if gold in Rio would be his country’s first ever in any horizontal jumps discipline.
“To be honest, Rio is not on my mind at the moment,” he says with typical modesty. “I hope to be healthy and ready to explode. It is going to be a very strong field in Rio. I just hope to bring my A game.”
Every day is a blessing for the man who has swapped the slums for sand pits.
“I never thought I would go so far. From where I come from not many people succeed in the sport. Many go a different way.”