Oscar’s dance with destiny

2014-11-23 15:00

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When a teenage Oscar Pistorius broke his prostheses, instead of going to his usual doctor, his grandmother Gerti found a number in Pretoria and dialled it. Pistorius’ biographer John Carlin details the event that changed Oscar’s life

One day during Oscar Pistorius’ first year at high school, when he was 14, he fell while running and broke his prosthetic legs. He went to his grandmother Gerti, who lived in Pretoria, for help. It was an emergency.

Instead of turning to his usual prosthetics specialist in Joburg, a 45-minute drive away, she looked in the phone book, found a number in Pretoria and dialled it. The person who answered the call was Francois van der Watt.

‘It was a total chance occurrence. I just happened to pick up the phone,’ he recalled. ‘There were others working there. I was a junior, just starting out in my first job at a prosthetics consultancy. She described the problem and asked: “Can you help?” I told her to bring the boy in right away.

‘I had a look at his prostheses and saw at once they were beyond repair,’ Van der Watt recalled, sitting in the lounge of his spacious Texas home. ‘They were old-style, 1950s, wooden, and they were an ungainly mess.’

He decided he should find a set of new, improved prostheses for the boy, which would allow him to run and play. ‘He was shy,’ Van der Watt recalled, ‘but as I would soon discover he really pushed himself to the limit.’ They had several sessions together until they found the right fit. One day, Van der Watt had a brainwave.

‘It was the year 2000, just before the summer Olympics and Paralympics. I was intrigued by this Paralympics thing and I got hold of a promotional video for the games. I thought Oscar should take a look at it. He had no idea Paralympic sport existed and he sat there watching the video in my office, absolutely absorbed. He was smiling and I could sense a tingle in him.’

What he needed now was a pair of carbon fibre ‘Cheetah’ blades like the ones the Paralympic runners used. The originals were far too expensive and so Van der Watt decided to try to build a pair of his own.

What he lacked was the knowledge required to work with carbon fibre and to mould the blades to the correct specifications. So he made contact with a man who worked with that very material in the manufacture of airplanes and drew a model of what he wanted, based on the Paralympians’ Cheetahs.

‘The airplane guy made the legs, I built the sockets into which Oscar would lock his stumps, I attached the two and we made a plan,’ said Van der Watt, who took a photograph of the 14-year-old on the very first day he tried them on. He looked proud as could be.

The problem, they would soon find, was that they would have to make not just one pair, but several. ‘We went to the track thinking “let’s see what happens”. Then he ran and broke the first pair in five minutes. I probably made five or six pairs until he stopped breaking them.’

His stumps bled, raw from the friction between the makeshift blades and the thin skin. But he never gave up.

It was not until 2001 that they hit upon a pair that did not break and with which the boy was entirely comfortable. He was still playing rugby at school, using his normal everyday prostheses, but every other week he would go to a track to experiment with the home-made Cheetahs.

At that stage, 14 going on 15, his goal was not the Paralympics. Van der Watt could see he was fast, but he did not know how fast relative to potential competitors at the highest level of disabled sports.

At the start of 2004, he began training at the University of Pretoria with an athletics coach by the name of Ampie Louw. The fruits of the new training became manifest within a month of the two starting out together at the end of January 2004, when Pistorius found himself representing Pretoria Boys at a schools athletics event in Bloemfontein.

Everything happened extraordinarily fast from that day on. It turned out that the time in which he won the 100m, 11.72 seconds, beat the world Paralympic record for double, or ‘bilateral’, amputees.

By nearly half a second. Rugby was forgotten. Still only 17, with a year and a half of secondary school to complete, he competed in the South African disabled games and, although initially perplexed at finding himself in the company of disabled people, a group to which he had been conditioned to imagine he did not belong, he instantly achieved the qualifying time to represent his country in the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games.

Suddenly, he was all over the news, he did a TV advertisement, he started receiving sponsorship money, he bought his first car and discovered his love of speed on the road.

In June, three months before the Athens Games, he contacted Van der Watt, who had just moved to the US. ‘“I am in the South African team. I need new legs,” were his words to me,’ Van der Watt recalled. ‘So I told him to fly over. He did, I measured him, made the socket, got the alignment right and there he was, with his first Cheetahs. They took him to the next level.’

At the Athens Games, he stole the show. He was the youngest runner on the track, but he won the 200m race and set a new world record.

Bill Schroder, his headmaster, was the law at Pretoria Boys. Inevitably, during Pistorius’ final year at school, after Athens, the two clashed. First, over a sponsored car that Pistorius had received. Schroder ordered him to get rid of it. Pistorius protested at first, but then grudgingly acquiesced.

The second time, Pistorius informed Schroder that he had to take time off from school to take part in an athletics competition in Finland. Schroder told him he was not going.

Apart from the principle of the matter, there was a practical reason Schroder did not want to let Oscar take time off from school – he had a duty to discharge as a dormitory prefect. In a room full of junior children, he was the one in charge, his job was to double up as mentor and enforcer of discipline.

After he shot Reeva Steenkamp, word spread among those who chose to believe that he had killed her deliberately that at school, in his capacity as dormitory prefect, he had been a violent bully.

How seriously the accusation was taken depended on whether it was measured by the standards of urban middle class cohabitation or by the higher threshold of rough behaviour tolerated within the walls of Pretoria Boys High.

Rumours did reach some teachers that he had a violent temper – that sometimes he ‘flipped’, as one of them put it – and that he threatened the younger boys. But that was hardly news at Pretoria Boys.

Heavy-handedness was the norm. Bullying went with the territory, and for boarders it was especially tough. Prefects were sergeant majors with license to subject their subordinates to all manner of indignities, not excluding physical violence to a degree that might be judged illegal in civil society.

What was considered unpardonable among the boys was to go and tell the teachers when someone had done something to you that you did not like. But while the boarders never ‘sneaked’ when they were at school, during the holidays some did confide in their parents.

Some of them talked about the boy with no legs.

In the all-male world of Pretoria Boys, the students enjoyed a freedom to inflict harm that they might not have found in the world beyond the school walls.

The danger was that they would fail to behave within legal limits once they left – as in the case of one former pupil who left the school in the 1980s, an especially unruly boy who used to break the unofficial rule that fighting was fine but you did not kick someone when he was down. He ended up killing his girlfriend, a former beauty queen, and then himself.

This is an edited extract from The Trials of Oscar Pistorius: Chase Your Shadow by John Carlin

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