Can track legend Carl Lewis coach South Africa's Shaun Maswanganyi to a world title in Budapest?

'We connected through hardship' - Maswanganyi on Carl Lewis mentorship (0:47)

South African sprinter Shaun Maswanganyi speaks about learning under the mentorship of USA track legend Carl Lewis at the University of Houston. (0:47)

The University of Houston Cougars' South African sprint star Shaun Maswanganyi has struck a special bond with his coach, nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, over the common experience of losing family members at crucial points in their careers.

At this year's World Athletics Championships [August 19-27 in Hungary], Maswanganyi can send a signal to the world that under Lewis' mentorship, he is ready to end a 115-year drought since South Africa's last male Olympic medallist in either the 100m or 200m [Reggie Walker].

Maswanganyi (22), the current NCAA Championship 100m bronze medalist, has long been one of South Africa's most highly rated sprint prospects, but the Soweto-born sprinter endured a tumultuous 2022, which saw him battle injuries and hearing that his brother had been killed by a gunshot.

His coach understands his state of mind, with Lewis having lost his father to cancer in 1987, while he was in his prime, and fighting with Ben Johnson for supremacy.

Maswanganyi told ESPN of his relationship with Lewis: "We've actually been close since my freshman year. We've been able to connect through hardship and tough times, because we come back from those tough times a lot stronger.

"Even coming in as a freshman [in 2020-21], I knew it was going to be hard to adapt, but I was able to adapt and he was able to be there alongside me. Even my harder days, my harder races, days I didn't feel like I had executed, he was still there.

"He can just call me some days randomly when I'm back here at home [in South Africa]. He'll call me at 5AM in Houston; he'll tell me: 'I was thinking about your race and I know you didn't execute this and this and this in practice.'

"Even though I'm not there, he wants to make sure that I'm still handling my part."

Reflecting on his NCAA bronze-winning run in Austin, Texas, a personal best of 9.91 seconds, he said: "I think I could have done better than I did. I would say I ran that race 97% correctly.

"In terms of when I was speaking to Coach Carl after that race, I was dealing with a lot of emotions, because I really believed I could have won it. I knew exactly what it took to win it.

"I knew I was going to have to run 9.88 [or] 9.87 to win it and unfortunately, the last five metres is where I really lost the race. I started leaning a little bit too early. It's a simple thing which sounds [silly], but you've got to tell yourself every single race not to lean. You either lean at the line or you don't lean at all.

"I really thought I could have executed that race better in terms of not leaning, but in terms of the whole execution of the race overall, I would still give myself a good score for that, because I really did what I needed to do."

Maswanganyi went on to claim silver at the World University Games 100m, running 10.06 in Chengdu in early August, and will hope to hit peak form in Budapest.

Maswanganyi was heavily recruited by US colleges as he came to the end of his high school years at St. Alban's College in Pretoria, saying: "I started applying to a lot of US colleges and pretty much every big Division I program offered me a full scholarship to come there.

"I selected a top four and I went to the University of Houston on a visit, Texas Christian, as well as Alabama and LSU."

However, the pull of Houston proved too great, particularly as Maswanganyi had the chance to work with two former 100m world record holders in Lewis and Leroy Burrell, with the latter having left the Cougars' coaching staff in 2022.

The sprinter said: "It was something special just to have that amount of experience, and to have coaches that have done it on the bigger stage [brings] a sense of humility.

"I feel humbled to be graced with the likes of them and for them to put in so much effort and energy with me, I definitely feel that it's up to me to do my best."

Maswanganyi had his first experience at the absolute pinnacle of the sport when he competed at the delayed Tokyo Olympics, falling short in the semi-finals of both the 100m and 200m.

The upcoming World Championships in Budapest will be a different challenge, given that the Olympics took place behind closed doors. However, Maswanganyi, who will once again run the 100m and 200m, feels confident that he is ready to rise to the occasion and that Tokyo prepared him well.

"If ever there was a time that I was going to be starstruck, it would have been the Olympics because that was my first big championship and I was going to be seeing all these big stars," Maswanganyi said.

"I was more starstruck in Tokyo meeting other celebs from other sports, like seeing Roger Federer, seeing famous soccer players. I was more starstruck around them, but in terms of track, I never really got that sense of being starstruck. I think it's because I was seeing and competing against some of the top guys already."

When it comes to the split seconds that could separate the history-makers from the rest, having a coach who has been there, done that, and got the t-shirt certainly counts for something.

"He [Lewis] is the one who prepares me for these moments, so I try to make sure he's as involved as possible [even when I'm competing for South Africa]. I try to get him accreditation, need it be for certain meets and at the end of the day as an athlete, you want to have the people that got you there around you," Maswanganyi said.

"Obviously, Coach Carl has been there throughout my whole season. He knows exactly what to say to me, what I need to focus on in the warm-up, what I need to focus on in the meet overall. It's good to have him there, also as a motivator.

"My key takeaways from him would definitely be to stay relaxed. When you stand on the line, you just tell yourself what you've been doing in practice.

"He's understanding in the sense that he's won titles when he didn't run the race to the best of his ability, so he understands the type of challenges we have to deal with and I think that's what allows me to connect with him a lot more.

"Some coaches have never been to these big races and it's very easy for them to criticise... With him, I understand how much pressure he had to deal with as an athlete at these stages and he gives me a little bit of grace.

"He understands some days he has to be really hard on me and some days, he has to be a lot more understanding than critical."

According to Clarence Munyai, Maswanganyi's national teammate and another hot prospect, Lewis' protégé is on course to raise the bar for South African athletes.

Munyai told ESPN: "I'm really happy that Shaun is doing what he's doing in America, because we're still a fairly new sprint nation and for him to move from here and go all the way there and achieve what he's done is tremendous.

"I think he's broken my junior record, so obviously, he watched us doing the things we were doing, going to World Juniors and World Seniors around that time and he's even doing better than what we did.

"I think he just saw it as a stepping stone, like: 'If they can do it, I can achieve it as well and I can even surpass what they did.' I'm happy for him because it's good for the sport and it helps the sport grow and bring in the next generation."

Munyai still holds the national 200m senior record, having run 19.69 seconds, and Akani Simbine holds the South African 100m record of 9.84, but Maswanganyi is breathing down the latter's neck.

He grew up idolising both Munyai and Simbine, as well as fellow South African sprinter Gift Leotlela, but only transitioned into sprinting from rugby by chance.

"I started track and field really at the age of 15, but around 2017 [or] 2018, I was taking a lot of knocks from rugby - because rugby was my main sport around then, rugby and basketball - I decided I was going to give track most of my effort and 2018/2019 was my breakthrough year," Maswanganyi recalled.

"I've seen a lot of kids, especially since I've been back home, tell me how much I inspire and motivate them and I think that's important, because when I was young and I was starting track and field, I looked at guys in my country - I've seen them do it, so I believed I could do it."