March 07, 2018 08:00 PM

A South African triathlete almost lost both of his legs after three men attacked him early Tuesday morning with a chainsaw while he was on his way to a training session.

Mhlengi Gwala, 27, received injuries to both of his legs after three men attempted to cut them off in the South African coastal city of Durban, he told a local outlet, The Mercury.

“They grabbed me from the bike and asked where I was going,” the sportsman – who has competed in America – said before going into surgery. “Then they pointed a gun at me and I panicked. But they didn’t say anything else and just pulled me into the bushes where they started doing what they did to me.”

His best friend and training partner Sandile Shange told the BBC the attackers had attempted to saw off Gwala’s right leg but moved to the left when the saw hit the bone of his right and would not cut through. The men were reportedly interrupted and the men ran away, so the athlete dragged himself to help.

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“He thought they were coming to rob him, [he] stopped and gave them his phone but they didn’t want his phone, didn’t want his watch or bicycle,” Shange said.

“They dragged him to the side of the road to some bushes, took a saw and started cutting his legs,” he continued. “They kept on cutting and when they got to the bone because the saw was not that sharp, the saw got stuck.”

He added, “When they saw it was getting stuck they started on the other leg.”

Shange said he spoke to Gwala about his recovery, telling the BBC, “When he spoke to doctors they said they will be able to save his leg and he will be able to walk and run again but it is a long walk to recovery.”

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A police spokesman told outlet that the case is being investigated as an attempted murder.

Dennis Jackson, the director of the elite athlete program in South Africa, told the Associated Press Gwala’s muscle, nerves and bone were damaged but they missed the main artery.

Jackson said surgeons are confident they can save Gwala’s leg.

Gert Oosthuizen, South Africa’s deputy sports minister, tweeted about the attack and described it as “totally unacceptable.”

“I am shocked to hear of the attack on star athlete Mhlengi Gwala – it is totally unacceptable – the Police are investigating – let us await the outcome,” he wrote.

Henri Shoeman, a triathlete who won bronze for South Africa at the Olympics in 2016, sent his well wishes to Gwala and questioned the safety of the country’s roads.

“A friend of mine, cycling in the Durban area was robbed by three people this morning, Then they attempted to saw off both legs with a chainsaw,” he tweeted. “Blade too blunt and only got half way through one and started on the other. Absolutely disgusting! How safe are we on SA roads?”

He added, “I wish all the best to @MhlengiGwala in his operation and road to recovery. We all stand behind you and support you as we need to make cycling safer on the roads in South Africa!”

A fund to support Gwala’s recovery was created at Back a Buddy.

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