Three years ago, Sizwe Ndlovu gave up his job as a computer technician in South Africa to pursue an Olympic gold medal in rowing at the London Games. It seemed a far-fetched quest.
For one, his country didn't have much of an international pedigree in the sport. And he was a black man from KwaZulu-Natal province, where sporting prowess was traditionally confined to rugby, cricket, football and swimming.
So when Ndlovu realised he had stroked South Africa's lightweight men's four to a 0.25-second victory Thursday over the favoured British team to win South Africa's first gold medal in the sport, he leapt into the arms of each of his crew, not quite believing the names next to the No. 1 position on the big TV screen.
The win will make Ndlovu and fellow crew members James Thompson, Matthew Brittain and John Smith iconic figures back home.
"I am the first black man in South African rowing (to win gold)," he told The Associated Press. "I feel very proud of that and for people in Africa to see what I've been doing."
It will also mean a royal reception from the Zulu tribal king in his home province when he returns.
"He will be received as a prince or a king," South African chef de mission Patience Shikwambana said. "We call KwaZulu-Natal 'The Kingdom.' So that means when he gets there, the king is going to come and welcome him and say, 'Yes boy, you've done us proud."'
Shikwambana said he hoped the 31-year-old Ndlovu, who is due to start a degree in sports science after the Olympics, would inspire a new generation to take up rowing instead of traditional sports like soccer.
"People normally ask you, 'Why do you do rowing?"' Ndlovu said. "It's costly and it takes up a lot of time. You can't just train for a month and be done. It's a full-time commitment. There's no money, and you have to work so hard at the same time."
Before 1990, there would have been no chance of Ndlovu being picked for South Africa's Olympic squad.
Apartheid existed in sports as much as any other walk of life, meaning that blacks were racially segregated and only whites were generally selected for international competition. That had all changed by 1994 when apartheid officially ended after the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela won multiracial democratic elections.
He started rowing 15 years ago and has been supported by the South African federation.
"In the past two years, I've made really important strides with the three guys standing behind me," he said, referring to his crew. "They mean a lot to me."