Meet Zinhle Ndawonde the rugby playing firefighter

LONDON, (SATSports) – Zinhle Ndawonde not only plays international women’s rugby for South Africa but she combines that with working as a firefighter at the Durban International Airport.

The 31-year-old has been doing both since 2013 but admits that it was not a job that she had ever imagined doing.

“It wasn’t my ideal job honestly but I needed money to take care of the family,” she told BBC Sport Africa.

“Being the first born at home and having to look after my mum and my sister, I realised I needed a job because obviously, as much as I was playing rugby, I needed an income.

“That’s when I saw firefighter post at Durban International Airport so I applied and then passed.”

While rugby is her first passion and she plays at the highest level the women’s game in South Africa is semi-professional and so they are unable to reap the financial rewards on offer to their male counterparts. 

“It’s one of the problems that we face as women, we find that you play a sport but you do not have a contract or you can’t make a living out of it, hence why I personally have a job,” Ndawonde continued.

The fact that she is able to combine two such physically demanding things has led to her rugby teammates joking about her having superpowers. Ndawonde has taken this online on her social media pages telling her followers, “I am a firefighter, what is your superpower?”

“Firefighting it’s one of the scariest things because you leave home in the morning, you are not sure what’s going to happen, during the day, it’s a higher risk job where anything could happen,” she explained.

An escape

While getting into firefighting was a means to financial sustenance, rugby, which she took up in school was an escape. 

Ndawonde was raised in Inanda township, in the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and her surroundings posed challenges growing up. 

“In the area where we were staying a lot of young girls were getting pregnant, getting raped and taking drugs, rugby then for me became an escape route,” she continued.

“I, looked at myself looked at where I was, where I wanted to be and then I took rugby as an escape.”

Ndawonde credits her mother for as well for the path she took in life and the ability to rise above life’s challenges.

“Growing up and looking at her being that strong woman, in those difficult times, with the little money that she had it gives me the strength,” she added.

She is now determined to try and inspire others and she has added being a youth coach to her list of jobs. 

“One of the biggest dreams that I have as a woman or rather as an athlete is to play sports but you use sport as a tool to inspire, especially young girls and women that thought that they cannot be anybody,” Ndawonde told BBC Sport Africa.

More immediately Ndawonde is looking forward to being part of South Africa’s team at the delayed World Cup in New Zealand next year. 

“Since 2014 we haven’t been (to the Women’s Rugby World Cup) and we not only go there to just play but to perform,” she insisted.

“To put it out there to say in South Africa, there’s a woman rugby team there’s talent and we get younger girls getting contract overseas and playing out of the country.”

In the meantime, she continues to find balance between two passions she says complement each other. 

“At first it was difficult for my employers to actually accept that I had to leave for up to a month (to play at events),” she added.

“Obviously I cannot get paid if I’m not at work but after the World Cup in San Francisco they then realised this is something big and that I am not playing for myself or my family but the nation as a whole. 

“So, since then they’ve been supporting me the whole time. For me balancing is easy because the two things require the same sentiments – I need to be fit physically and emotionally.”

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