Pieter Du Preez’s story needs to be told. Ten years ago while riding his bike a motorist knocked him over, and in the accident he broke, amongst other things, his neck. He is a C6 quadriplegic and is paralysed from his nipples down. This implies that he can use his biceps, shoulder muscles, pectoris minor, but not pectoris major muscles. I always take strain typing the word, ‘paralysed’ in relation to Pieter. The reason for this is that he made history recently as the first C6 quadriplegic to complete a half ironman. Very few able bodied people on the planet have ever managed to swim, bike and run for over 113 km’s. With 15% of muscles that do work, and a mind that refuses to be trapped into any constraint, he is now training to do a full ironman. Pieter as a person is not paralysed! You and I will shortly see history being made again, as he chases down the finish line at Ironman Busselton.
A few weeks ago, Piet’s wife Illse, asked me if I would be happy to join Piet and help him out at Tri- Rock in Durban. This was to be Tri-Rock’s first 70.3 distance tri in Durban and Pieter had been invited to compete. I would help him with the swim, then do the ride and he would go on to do the ‘run’. I jumped at the opportunity.
The major challenge was the swim. Piet has developed a double arm back stroke. That means that he cannot see where he is swimming. Also, without trunk and leg strength he is unable to get into and out of the water, and even more disturbingly, he runs the risk of serious injury when having to cope with the waves, as he both goes out and comes back in from the sea. The night before the swim Piet explained to me that his back muscles were completely atrophied, and that his back could snap if a wave hit him incorrectly. Needless to say I did not sleep well the night before the triathlon. He has not swum through proper waves since his accident.
On Sunday morning we made our way to the start of the tri. Illse and I needed to get him out of his wheelchair, carry him down the stairs at the beach, and then sit him down on the sand. The plan was as follows, with gently rolling waves I would lift him up so that he could float over them. With more aggressive waves I would tap him twice on the chest as a warning of impending doom. His job then was to take a deep breath and I would push him under the water where his body would experience less twisting force. At 7:20 a.m. we entered the water to start our crazy quest. I can’t remember how many waves broke over us, but after a period of time we were beyond the breakers. It was now up to Piet to do his 1.9 k swim under his own strength. My job was to swim breast stroke behind him and make sure that we swam in a straight line from buoy to buoy. On the back straight I noticed a few of the life guards came along side us. By this time most of the swimmers were out of the ocean. I explained to them that they were watching a quadriplegic swim. Piet had a group of admirers around him, me included. The last section of the swim is a straight line back to the beach. The life guards who were perched on the boards formed a corridor on either side of us and honoured Piet by shouting and clapping for him. My goggles filled with water at that point. (As a manly man I could only conclude that they must have sprung a leak). The plan to get him safely through the breakers meant that I would turn him around so that he would face the beach feet first. Once again I would check behind to see what type of wave was coming up behind us. Kind waves meant that I would lift his body so that he could crest them, angry, breaking waves meant a double tap on the chest and then a firm dunk. For the last bit, Illse came running into the sea to help me get him out the water and carry him back to the promenade.
It was now my turn to hop onto the bike and complete the 90km ride. I was one of the last people to get onto a bike and make my exit out of Durban and ride to Ballito and back. The ride is a great ride, and made all the better with total road closure. At the end of my ride, Piet got onto the run course with his three wheeler upright wheelchair.
He faces a number of challenges on the chair. Firstly the chair is wide and difficult to steer, and so he has to be careful not to hit other runners when he goes downhill. He has no use of his triceps and so he can only pull upwards on the wheel and is unable to flick the wheel forward as you would if you had use of your triceps. There is a spot on the run course where it kicks up steeply. Watching Piet tackle the hill was just amazing. The hill was conquered each time by sheer guts and determination. Illse and I were asked to join Piet on the finishing shoot, where we had the privilege of crossing the line together. We finished in just over 51/2 hours. I will never forget that moment.
– Piet’s wife, Illse is as brave as her husband. My respect for her is immense. She serves Piet selflessly. It has been said that behind every great man is a great woman. Illse fits this description perfectly.
– I wish the Trirock organisers all the best for the future. The tri in Durban was a huge success. Two announcers were used by them, and they brought the whole tri to life. I remember hearing them cheer Piet and myself on as we swum along the back straight of the ocean course. They also made a huge fuss of every finisher. Podium winners as well as ordinary athletes were made to feel like absolute champions.
– Our minds can create powerful shackles. Most of life’s tests are passable, as long as we do not let our minds tell us otherwise. Don’t let the word, “impossible”, enter your vocabulary.
– We must celebrate both the first and last athlete in at all events. No one knows what each person has had to overcome, and we are in this thing called life together.
Please give Pieter a follow on twitter – www.twitter.com/supapiet. He needs all the encouragement we can give as he prepares for Ironman Busselton.
Someone somewhere needs to make a documentary on his prep for the full Ironman race. To let this go without proper coverage would be a huge pity. Give me a call if you can help.
Below is a picture of the two of us crossing the line. I gave the chair a slight push to get his front wheel over the bump at the end.