South African triathlete Mhlengi Gwala is recovering in hospital after a roadside attack left him seriously injured, as unknown assailants seemingly attempted to hack off his legs with a chainsaw on Tuesday.
Gwala was on a training ride on his bicycle before dawn in the coastal city of Durban when he was dragged off the road by three attackers, and they attempted to cut off his legs with a blunt chainsaw. He was found by a local security company and taken to hospital.
South Africa's deputy sports minister, Gert Oosthuizen, described the attack on the "star athlete" as "totally unacceptable" and said police are investigating.
Dennis Jackson, director of the Elite Athlete Development programme for KwaZulu-Natal province, told The Associated Press that he has spoken to Gwala, 27, who was awake after having surgery.
Jackson said Gwala told him that the attackers sawed into his right calf, damaging muscle, nerves and bone. They missed a main artery, and surgeons are confident they can save the leg, Jackson said.
Jackson said the attackers also started sawing into Gwala's left leg before fleeing, enabling the athlete to crawl to a road and flag down a passing car to take him to a hospital.
"Mhlengi doesn't know why they left [in the midst of the attack]," Jackson told TimesLIVE. "He dragged himself out of the bush onto the road and a private security car picked him up and took him to the nearest hospital. ...
"What the damage to his leg is‚ we will know in the next few days I guess."
Fellow triathlete and Olympic silver medalist Henri Schoeman tweeted about the attack on Tuesday evening.
Gwala's athletic sponsor Sue de la Porte confirmed that the initial motive for the attack appeared to be robbery. But the attack escalated, and de la Porte told News24: "He tried offering them his cellphone and money, but they pinned him down and tried to saw off his leg."
Jackson said he was told the assailants were speaking in a language that Gwala could not understand.
"I haven't quite got to grips with exactly what happened," Jackson told TimesLIVE. "It seems like they pulled him into a bush while he was on a training ride. They had a chainsaw and went for one of his legs‚ which is the concerning part.
"We don't yet know how far they went in‚ whether they were trying to cut it off‚ or what the circumstances are. All we know is that Mhlengi is alive‚ he is talking and that he is under medical care. We don't have the whole story as yet."
Gwala became an excellent athlete after overcoming drug and alcohol addictions, representing South Africa at international competitions in Chicago in 2015 and in the Netherlands last year, Jackson said. The athlete's long-term goals were to compete in half or whole ironman triathlons. Triathlons feature swimming, cycling and running.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.