Pieter ‘Supa Piet’ du Preez is a C6 quadriplegic, meaning that he only has his head, shoulder, limited arm function and no hand or finger movement. Yet he is currently in training for the Half Iron-Man in Australia.
He aims to complete the 1.9 kilometre swim, 90 kilometre cycle and 21.1 kilometre run (push, in his case) to fulfil a personal ambition of becoming the first C6 quadriplegic athlete to complete what is one of the most demanding events in any sports calendar. What’s more, he has to do everything required of him within the 8.5 hours cut-off time set for able-bodied athletes.
Most of his strength comes from his biceps and shoulders. He must, however, contend with complete paralysis of his body and legs.
How he will do it
Taking part in the Busselton 70.3 event (outside Perth, Australia) in Pieter’s case required more than just popping in an entry form and pitching up. His participation, he says, required that the organisers allow him to be assisted at various points along the course.
His challenges will include having someone swim behind him to ‘tap’ his legs so that he can maintain direction in the sea swim. The reason, he says, is that because his triceps muscles don’t function, he cannot swim crawl like able-bodied competitors. His preferred stroke is a ‘double-armed backstroke’.
Getting out of the water and into his specially adapted bike, in which he is slung from the frame in a sling, also requires assistance. In addition, he is allowed to have two people helping him in the transition area between legs of the race.
From then on, he has to rely on sheer ‘biceps and shoulder power’ to propel himself the remaining 111.1 kilometres of the event. Assistance on the road will require the usual drinks and, in Pieter’s case, a drenching from a bucket of water to cool him down. Because of the nature of his disability, he doesn’t sweat so there is a real danger that without a regular watering down, his body will overheat.
When he talks, it’s hard not be simply overwhelmed when thinking about the planning, logistics, correspondence and plain hard training that are involved in achieving his ambition. What also has to be factored into the mix is getting in to work every day and working as an actuarial analyst at Deloitte in Woodmead, Johannesburg.
Why go through all this to compete in a race?
The answer lies in Pieter’s approach to life. He has a strong faith, a competitive spirit, a passion for his sport and simply isn’t a person who is prepared to compromise.
“Triathlons and sport for me are lifestyles. I believe that whatever you do, there is at least one person looking up at you. I believed this before my accident and do so now, more than ever before. With this belief in challenges and the strength of the human spirit, goes a similar outlook on life.”
“I have been given an opportunity to do what most people would consider are impossible things. By doing them, I believe that I am encouraging others to tackle what they believe is impossible.”
How he became a C6 quadriplegic
Pieter was 23-years-old and contemplating becoming a professional triathlete, when a car turned across his path in Johannesburg, sending him flying from his bike. He knew he was in trouble, he says when, while lying on the tarmac, he realised that something was wrong with his neck. By the time he reached hospital he was fighting to breathe.
He smiles ruefully as he recalls that he was on his way to the chiropractor when the accident occurred. “I had a hamstring injury and was on my way to get my spine aligned, when the car hit me and put it totally out of alignment,” he says.
A medically-induced coma and long rehabilitation followed. Through it all, says Pieter, he knew he was going to be fine. “It was grace from God above,” he explains simply, “before the accident; I believed that if my legs didn’t work my life would be over.”
“After the accident, it was a matter of guess what? I can’t move my legs, my fingers or my arms. It was simply never an issue. My body was injured. Pieter du Preez wasn’t injured a bit. In fact, I learned such a lot. I got so much stronger in terms of what and who Pieter is.”
“I want a picture done for home, one of all three Triathlon sports. It will show me in the background running, but running into my racing chair. For me, I have been living one continuous life; there is no line saying before and after. I am still running, although in a different way.”
Pieter responds to the question about what has changed in his life by appropriately turning to a race analogy. “I used to be always in front,” he says. “I made the South African ‘under 23’ Triathlon team, South African Student’s cycling team. When I competed in events after the accident it was weird for me to be a back-straggler. I learned what it was like to be at the back of the race where people encourage each other - something which doesn’t happen at the front of the field.
“When it comes to disability, I have learned a lot. I know that I have to break the ice because people sometimes don’t know how to deal with me. My knowledge and understanding of the human spirit has increased. I am living a fuller life because I am seeing so much more of life. Material things have no significance.” “In short, I wouldn’t change anything for the world.”
Failing eyesight too
As if he does not face enough challenges, Pieter also has an
inherited genetic eye problem and has already started losing his sight. Being
quadriplegic has sped up the process. Even though there are exciting
developments in stopping the degeneration in his eyes, it is still far from
approval and won’t replace vision already lost.
His response to the possibility of becoming completely blind in the near future is characteristic of the man. “I will complete a full Iron-Man event, even if I have to have someone leading me all the way.”
Follow Pieter’s progress as he trains to achieve a world’s first on Twitter @supapiet #Supapiet