Extraordinary Ordinary Eastern Cape: Vukile “King" Makeleni, Formula 1 Triathlon
Vukile “King” Makeleni is a man who has used his natural sports talent and grasped every opportunity offered to him to go from swimming in dams in Mdantsane to gaining an international qualification as a triathlete coach and founding his own coaching business, Formula 1 Triathlon.
King and I work together at Merrifield – him in the sports department, myself in marketing – and I just love his story of how hard work, and support given at the right times in his life, have propelled him forward over the past 15 years. The number of athletes wearing the red and black of Formula 1 has grown at local and national events, and as a committed coach he is a familiar face at local and international triathlons.
Now a recognised and respected coach, with elite qualifications, King has big plans for the future and isn’t scared of hard work. He is driven to succeed, for himself and for his family, while remaining one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. He is a development athlete success story who, in turn, continues to uplift development athletes in East London and surrounding areas.
What is your preferred name and surname?
Everyone in Mdantsane and East London know me as “King”, although my real name is Vukile Makeleni.
Where do you live in the Eastern Cape? I live in the Quigney near the beachfront. I’ve been staying there almost four years now. I like it here because for me it works nice with my coaching business and it’s close to town for my training. For my little ones also, it’s nice for them if I take them for walks or for them to run around.
I was born in Mdantsane, NU1. I went to school there. I spent a lot of time there in Mdantsane but then when I grew up and I started lifesaving around 2004, I was very active those days. I used to take a train from Mdantsane to Nahoon and it was quite far. It was fine, but later on it was easier for me to move into town. I still go into Mdantsane every now and then to visit my parents and old friends.
What was the path you took to get to where you are now, the owner of Formula 1 Triathlon Club and a respected, highly qualified coach?
When I was at school in Mdantsane, in Standard 8 my dad, who was the breadwinner of our family, unfortunately passed away. My mom didn’t have a good job at the time. Things got very difficult for me. I started swimming. When I grew up, I liked swimming. We used to go in dams; I loved the water so much but my mom told me that I should stop going to the dams because it was dangerous. She said I should see where I could go swim properly, so I went to Joan Harrison. I met guys there called Lulu Karhiso and Travis Smith. They taught me how to swim properly. When I was able to swim properly, Travis introduced me to lifesaving and I did the course.
It was really difficult for me those days because where we went to school in Mdantsane, we didn’t speak a lot of English. They taught us English, but in Xhosa, because the teachers were Xhosa, so communication was bad. But I was trying! (laughs) The guys were so very helpful to me and they could see that I was trying.
I did the lifesaving course and in those days I could only get jobs during December. That changed my life because then I was earning a salary, quite a big salary in December, so I was able to pay my fees, I was able to support my mom and put food on the table, but only for that month. Then I decided in Standard 9 that I’m not going to be able to continue with school because things were very tough, so I applied for a fulltime lifesaving job.
Luckily I got it, but I knew that I would finish my studies anyhow, it’s just at that time (getting a job) was the easiest way for me to make things right.
The following year, 2006, I finished my studies part-time at Buffalo City College because I wanted to finish Grade 12. I was able to pay for myself, support my family. It was alright. Travis Smith was really excited because he could see that I knew what I wanted and was working hard.
I became a lifesavers instructor, able to teach other guys how to become lifesavers and the more time I spent at the lifesaving club, the better I was able to speak English properly because I was always mixing with the guys; we were training together, traveling together to competitions.
After a couple of years with lifesaving, there was a German guy, Yorck Wurms, who was working for the German government in the Eastern Cape with triathlon development. There were 10 of us who started triathlon in this program. Swimming was my strong point from lifesaving – having started from nowhere before – and Yorck organised advanced coaches from Germany so my swimming improved a lot. Running was always my strong point from school, so I was a strong triathlete out of the 10.
For example, from the Eastern Cape, when we went to nationals I qualified for Worlds first time. They saw my talent, and so after that I spent a lot of time with triathlon. I travelled South Africa and went to World Champs and what started to happen was that I began to like triathlon more than lifesaving. Travis Smith was my captain and I had to explain to him, “Look, boet, I think this (the sport of triathlon) is an opportunity for me”, and he encouraged me to go for it.
I had an accident in 2010 after the World Champs; I broke my arm. It was a bad break which required a major operation.
At the time I had a coach from New Zealand, Tony Lambdon, who told me that I should consider coaching as, because of my accident, I wouldn’t be very good. I’m good, but as you travel the world you see that there are many athletes much stronger than me.But if I become a coach, that could be a career for me.
Tony taught me how to coach. He taught me the basics – that your athlete must have a goal, things like that. He did a workshop, for all 10 of us, to give everyone a chance. There was an interview because there was an opportunity for one of us to go to Germany for a schools triathlon coach. They only wanted one, and luckily the chose me.
Note: Over a period of around 13 years, King went from Germany, to Cape Town to do his TSA Coach (advanced), then Level 2 TSA Coach in Cape Town, and in 2017 he travelled to Korea for a Level 1 IT (International Coach).
It’s been a long time in this field but honestly, I love it. After the accident, the last time I competed at a World Championship was in 2014 in Canada. Now I do my own training to keep fit and because I love the sport.
Note: At the time, as a development athletes King used to get funding from BCM and Ironman.
Formula 1 started in November 2017. That was my own business. I was coaching development before but there were problems with funding. I thought to myself, I can do this (coaching), not only for development athletes but there are other guys in East London that may benefit from what I can offer.
It started very small with a few athletes, but I knew that it could work and I spent a lot of time on my athletes. I even stopped my own training and put all my effort there. After four months I could see the results. I also haven’t stopped helping the development guys, even though most of them have finance issues. I try and help them where I can with reduced rates.
In 2018 Formula 1 had eight athletes compete in the 70.3 in East London in January, and 12 in Durban. There are about 30 athletes now that I am coaching and I am happy.
These are from junior athletes who do sprint and mini triathlons to athletes competing in Ironman. Some only do swimming with me, and I also coach athletes in PE and Joburg.
When an athlete achieves it’s a great thing for me. There are a couple of athletes, with me, who have never swum before, and today they are so much into sport and it feels very good.
Because for myself, remember that I couldn’t do these things. I think one of the things that make me able to teach people is that I know exactly how it feels because before, I was in that position. I wasn’t able to swim properly before. I know how long it takes for you to learn how to breathe, to kick, the anxiety someone has if they are scared to go into the sea. I know exactly how someone feels because before, I was also like that.
In 10 years’ time… I love coaching, I will still do coaching, but I will have another business that is stronger, behind me. I believe in myself but it’s always good to have something bigger.
I will still coach, but I have little ones and I want to see that they go to varsity one day. I don’t want them to experience the same life that I’ve experienced growing up and having difficulties. I would like to see them having a smooth life, the same as the other kids.
I would like to coach a triathlete that will go to ITU, that earns big money for triathlon, but coaching, I will do it until I’m sixty years, I won’t stop it, but I will have other business behind, in case, so that I am able to pay for my bills.
How would you describe your part of the Eastern Cape to someone who had never visited? The Eastern Cape is a nice place. The people are friendly here. It doesn’t matter if it’s Mdantsane or Nahoon, this is a positive place. Look, there are always obstacles wherever you go, but people are very supportive in East London. I love this place. It’s a small town; it’s easy to travel from A to B – not very big compared to other places in South Africa. - Taralyn Mclean, February 2020
* By coincidence, Travis Smith is married to running superstar Stephanie Smith who also works at Merrifield as an Afrikaans teacher. It’s a small world. Vukile’s mom, Yoliswa, also works at Merrifield as part of the auxiliary staff. The Daily Dispatch wrote an article on Yoliswa and King, available online
* King would like to mention, in particular, the BCTri committee who were around when he started in the sport of triathlon, in particular then chairman Gary Gravett, and Sheryl Cole. He also mentioned Cycle HQ who would offer development triathletes discounts on bikes or spares, and do services for free.
* King is an international coach who received his ITU teaching qualification in Korea in 2017.
Through his company, Formula 1 Triathlon, he offers personalised coaching locally, and distance coaching to athletes around South Africa. For more information, contact King on +27 83 472 4470 or follow the Formula 1 Facebook page
* Thank you to Natelie Kriel for the use of her photographs taken at Ironman 70.3 and at recent Buffalo City Triathlons held in East London in 2019.