Johannesburg - When Ncincilili Titi - South Africa’s newest 200m African champion - tells his story, it sounds an awful lot like the main reason he is sprinting is to scrape enough money together to pay for his commercial pilot’s licence.
By the time he went back to sprinting in 2013, Titi, who won 100m silver at the junior national champs while at school, had been based in Pretoria for two years, studying towards a pilot’s licence.
“I’ve always been obsessed with flying,” he said from the US state of Columbia this week, where he is finishing his public health degree at the University of South Carolina.
“If I wasn’t running, I’d be a pilot. But running is a gift I feel obligated, almost compelled, to see through because it only lasts for a short period of time. Running will help my flying, but I have a strong passion for my athletics. I’ve been doing this for 13 years. You can’t go for that long without passion, and the work we put in is crazy.”
Having quit athletics in matric after suffering an ankle injury, the 24-year-old’s return to the sport was driven by two things: the prohibitive cost of becoming a pilot and seeing old friend and former schoolmate Anaso Jobodwana run in the 200m final at the 2012 Olympics.
His private pilot’s licence cost him R100 000 and his estimate of how much a commercial licence would set him back was R400 000 to R500 000. While deliberating that, the sight of fellow old Selbornian Jobodwana hobnobbing with the likes of Usain Bolt in London set something off within him.
“When I saw him run in the Olympics, that part of me that felt like I could no longer do it disappeared. Having trained and done the same times as him, I started thinking I could do it. He suggested I try the US colleges.”
To improve his chances of a scholarship, Titi had to start training again to lower his 200m personal best time that languished at 21 seconds.
“I started training in October 2013 and, six months later, I was the South African senior national champ with a time of 20.4.”
Adjusting to the US collegiate system, which broke the gifted Riaan Dempers in the mid-1990s, proved tough.
“The National Collegiate Athletic Association is constant competition - especially the relays - which can make or break people. You have to look after yourself. In the first two years, I didn’t get any personal bests.
“To go from national champ on course to doing great things to running those times was mentally tough. The third year was when I started looking out for myself.”
Looking out for himself has brought him personal bests in the 60m (6.69), the indoor 200m (20.45, a South African record), the 100m (10.16) and the 200m (20 seconds). The continental title in the half-lap (20.46) was thrown in for good measure in his breakthrough season.
“It’s just hard work and dedication - a commitment to the sport. I want to be a professional 200m runner for my country and that’s what it’ll take to do it.
“The African champs were like a cherry on top of what has been my best season, especially seeing I didn’t compete in South Africa. I had a different approach going into Nigeria because I’d been to major championships before.”
With his studies finishing this year, Titi has to think about turning pro, where he will base himself and running a sub-20-second 200m.
“It doesn’t frustrate me much because I know what my body can do now.”