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'Swim Your Own Race' Wins NPR's Poetry Games

Aug 10, 2012
Originally published on August 10, 2012 1:24 pm

As athletes have sprinted and soared their way to bronze, silver and gold in London, Morning Edition has celebrated the Olympics with the Poetry Games: We invited poets from around the globe to compose original works about athletes and athletics and asked you to be the judges. Thousands of listeners voted online, and now we are pleased to crown the victor: Mbali Vilakazi from South Africa wins for her poem "Swim Your Own Race."

Vilakazi was inspired by fellow South African Natalie du Toit, a swimmer who lost her leg as a teenager. In 2008, du Toit made history as the first woman amputee to qualify for the Olympics.

"As a young person trying to find my own way, there have been challenges that I've had to face and at times ... I really felt that they were insurmountable," Vilakazi explains.

Vilakazi was particularly impressed by the swimmer's ability to adapt in the face of adversity; du Toit was already an accomplished swimmer when she lost her leg in a scooter accident at 17. Yet she carried on.

"It's not about what happens to you, it's about how quickly you can get up," Vilakazi says. "And I think that that's what the Olympics is all about. ... That's what I love, and that's what I hold onto."

As South Africans, Vilakazi and du Toit are deeply connected to their country's long and ugly history of apartheid. Vilakazi says that as a black South African, she did pause to consider her choice of du Toit, a white Afrikaaner, as the subject of her celebratory poem.

"When I got the invitation to be a part of the Poetry Games, I did have a moment when I thought: OK, well, I'm a young black South African woman, how am I going to use my voice?" Vilakazi says. But she concluded that the fight against apartheid was really a struggle "about people being people and being recognized for their contributions to society, and I held onto that."

Vilakazi says that the society — and the world — she would like to live in is one in which people have the courage to celebrate one another for what they have done, even when history makes it difficult.

"I just thought that even for a young black South African such as myself, it was important for me to choose her nonetheless," Vilakazi explains. "I just felt that the story was just so important, we can all benefit from it."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And to celebrate the Olympics, all this week, we're bringing you the Poetry Games: poets from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and North America all competing for the gold with poems about the Olympics or the athletes in the Olympics.

You voted online. And now this morning, we can announce the winner of MORNING EDITION's Poetry Games.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM ROLL)

MONTAGNE: The winner is South Africa's Mbali Vilakazi. Her poem "Swim Your Own Race" has taken the gold in the Poetry Games.

MBALI VILAKAZI: Wow.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear - she's with us - as I place, virtually, over the phone, the wreath of victory upon...

VILAKAZI: Wow.

MONTAGNE: ...her head. Now we've reached you in Durbin, South Africa to make this all official. So you're poem celebrates a swimmer. Natalie du Toit made history as the first woman amputee to qualify for the Olympics and lost her leg as a teenager when she had already begun competing as a swimmer.

VILAKAZI: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: Tell us a little bit about her story that inspired you to choose her.

VILAKAZI: I was just so inspired by it, because as a young person trying to find my own way, there have been challenges that I've had to face. And at times, I've felt really sort of - I really felt that, you know, they were insurmountable. And the image of Natalie has always stayed with me, that what excuse do I have?

We're not talking about somebody who was born with her condition. This is somebody who has had to adjust. And not too many people can get up after something like that. So it's not about what happens to you. It's about how quickly you can get up. And I think that that's what the Olympics is all about, that kind of audacity of the pushing, not just the physical aspect, because a lot of these disciplines are also - they're about spirit. They're about the mind. That's what I love, and that's what I hold onto.

MONTAGNE: You know, I wonder, when you talk about adversity in your country, in South Africa, what would you say to people who still connect the country to its long and ugly history of apartheid, and find it surprising, perhaps, that you, a black South African, are celebrating in your poetry a white Afrikaner, the South Africans who created apartheid, I mean, one generation away?

VILAKAZI: I must be honest with you and say that when I got the invitation to be a part of the Poetry Games, I did have a moment when I thought: OK, well, I'm a young black South African woman. How am I going to use my voice? And firstly, I think that everything that follows apartheid and where we come from as a country, the fight was about people being people and being recognized for their contributions to society, and I held onto that.

For me, I thought the society that we want to build, in fact, the kind of world we want to live in is a world that is going to have the courage to do that when it's difficult. And I just thought that even for a young black South African such as myself, it was important for me to choose her nonetheless, that I just felt that the story was just so important, we can all benefit from it.

MONTAGNE: Mbali Vilakazi, thank you very much for the poem and for joining us this morning.

VILAKAZI: Thank you so much for the opportunity. And thank you to Natalie, really.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And many thanks to all of the poets who competed in our Poetry Games.

MONTAGNE: Now, in honor of the victor, the beginning strains of South Africa's national anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NKOSI SIKELEL' IAFRIKA")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.