A Congolese refugee and a 12-year-old boy, inspired by Mandela’s legacy, teamed up to complete a five-mile swim from Robben Island in Cape Town to raise funds for charity.

The Freedom Day Swim took place on 21 April and saw people from around the world swim from Robben Island to the mainland. The island is infamous as the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 27-years he served behind bars. The swim is held each year to celebrate the beginning of democracy in South Africa (27 April 1994).

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Challenged to come up with a leadership project at school, Grade 6 learner Gabriel Schreiber teamed up with 23-year-old Congolese refugee Arafat Gatabazi as his swim coach and decided to push himself out of his comfort zone. The swim from Robben Island is considered the “Everest” of open water swimmers in South Africa, not only for its distance but for the cold water, jellyfish and Cape Town’s resident evil: the great white shark.

Schreiber and Gatabazi at the halfway mark.

Gatabazi fled Africa’s deadliest conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013, spending four months on the road without his parents, eventually making his way to South Africa. He only learned to swim after arriving at a Cape Town refugee shelter as a teenager, and loved it. No longer bothered by extremes, he took a liking to open water swimming and has since completed the Atlantic Ocean swim from Robben Island multiple times.

The pair swam alongside each other the whole way and completed the five-mile swim in 2 hours and 34 minutes. Schreiber became the third youngest person in the world to complete the swim, beating many of the adult competitors. Much of their training in the weeks before  the event had been to accustom their bodies to the 50 °F water and the real risk of hyperthermia.

Their swim, dubbed the #StrokesForSpokes Challenge, aimed to raise funds for Chaeli Mycroft’s Sport & Recreation Club, an organization that helps disabled children, especially young wheelchair users from disadvantaged communities, take part in activities they would usually not be able to enjoy. 

From Left: Arafat Gatabazi, Chaeli Mycroft and Gabriel Schreiber.

Despite being a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, Mycroft does not shy away from physical challenges either. She has been up Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro, and was the first wheelchair athlete in history to participate in the 55-mile Comrades Marathon. She also won the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2011, the equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize for kids.

Mycroft has challenged young people to achieve the impossible by starting the #BetICan campaign and has undertaken a series of physical challenges to prove skeptics wrong.

“I did this swim to raise awareness around children who are much less fortunate than me,” says Schreiber. “I’m lucky to have a body that can do almost anything, and I want to remind people about those who can’t move about freely, like most of us. Chaeli has inspired me by showing that disability can be turned into ability.”

Some say leadership is learned; not something you’re born with. If that’s true, we should start examining what we teach our kids at school. Pinning a goal to a higher cause is one good example. Pushing physical boundaries is another, which can surely teach kids how to push past mental boundaries too, and in so doing, create a new generation of leader who sees the value of achievement tied to social good.

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