Seabelo Senatla: “Dreams should be so big they scare you”After a heartbreaking injury in Rio, the Blitzboks superstar has got his head right and is ready to take on the world again
Going into the Rio Olympics this August, Seabelo Senatla was probably the most valuable player in Rugby Sevens: not only was he by far the highest try-scorer of the 2016 season (66 tries in 55 matches), he was also in the top 10 list for most tackles made.
Certainly Senatla was a talismanic player for the Blitzboks, who were desperate to win Olympic gold after being runners-up in the last four World Rugby Sevens Series. Then, in the dying seconds of the quarter-final against Australia, Senatla fell awkwardly and fractured his wrist. The 23-year-old was about to face the sternest test of his stellar career.
THE RED BULLETIN: You had just scored twice against Australia, and now your Olympic dream was in tatters. How did that feel?
SEABELO SENATLA: I can remember that moment like it was yesterday. Right after the fall, I was holding my hand because it was very painful. I stayed pretty positive, but when the X-rays came back the next morning, it was clear that it would be impossible for me to play. I was very disappointed. It was really sad not to have competed in the semi-final, the most important match of our campaign.
What happened next?
Behind closed doors, I was depressed. But I couldn’t show it, because the rest of the team had to stay positive. I also realised it was never really about me. That’s how our team is: we say it takes 12 players to win a tournament, not one or two or three. It doesn’t really matter who gets injured – we believe we have the players to win any game at any point, every single time. Take care of the team, and the team will take care of you.
What did Olympic Rugby Sevens mean to you?
I gave up three years of my time for it. As soon as I heard Sevens was in the Olympics, I sacrificed everything else; I didn’t play 15s or Super Rugby, and I passed up a place in the Springboks squad. I was a sprinter when I was younger [running 100m in 10.6 seconds at the age of 17], and I dreamt of going to the Olympics one day. Having toured with the Boks and then chosen Sevens rather than 15s – that’s a huge sacrifice. But my Olympic dream was bigger.
Your teammate Francois Hougaard gave you his bronze medal, then received another for outstanding sportsmanship…
I felt like I didn’t deserve the medal, because I didn’t play for it. But [Hougaard’s gesture] shows what kind of players we have – people who put others before themselves. I only felt like I deserved the medal after Francois had been given his second.
What have you learnt during your comeback from injury?
Going home to my family and friends was pretty magical – it gave me new energy. My mind had to be right before coming back to do rehab. When you’re totally devoted to something psychologically, it has a great impact on your physicality. Rehab is a very lonely town; you’re on your own. You need commitment and dedication to keep doing the small things when no one else is watching. It’s a certain type of discipline, to hold yourself accountable.
Did your Rio experience dampen your ambitions?
I’ve always been a dreamer, so not really. I believe that if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough. I’m hungrier now than I’ve ever been. I know perfection isn’t attainable, but I want to see how close I can get as a player. I still want to become a Sevens legend, and I’ll be trying to make that long-awaited Boks debut. Someone who is already a legend is Bryan Habana. I aspire to whatever he has done, and a little bit more. I want to push myself towards that.
And the upcoming Cape Town Sevens?
It’s awesome. It’s the only time we get to play at home, so we express ourselves, as the results show [SA have won the last three]. Fans travel from as far afield as Joburg and Port Elizabeth. It’s a weekend of rugby, braais and beers with mates in a party atmosphere – the ultimate rugby holiday.