Macethandile “Max” Kulati slipped and fell in the butchery where he worked but didn’t give a second thought to what seemed like a minor accident.
Two weeks later Max (33), a father of three, experienced a numb sensation in his legs.
“I went to a doctor who gave me an injection in my back, assuring me it would solve the problem.
“I felt better and went home. I went to sleep – and when I woke up I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t understand it. I had no sensation in my legs and my legs felt cold.”
He was referred to Livingstone Hospital in Gqeberha where he had a battery of tests.
“Doctors told me there was a growth in my spine that affected my nervous system. I underwent medical procedures but my nervous system was damaged, and I was left paralysed from my waist down.
“Then came the shocking part – the doctor told me I would probably spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair.”
Now, after years of enduring some of the toughest and darkest days imaginable, Max talks about how sport saved him. This is his story.
“The accident and the diagnosis were in 2014. After I lost the use of my legs I was devastated and so angry.
I didn’t know what had gone wrong. Everyone was asking me, ‘What happened?’ How do I explain no longer being able to walk to someone who can walk? That was very hard because you don’t know what to tell them, or the real reason behind it.
I locked myself in a dark room, asking questions like, ‘Why me?’ I remember crying a lot, not eating and not wanting anyone near me, not even my mother.
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I was born abled, and in the blink of an eye I was disabled. I could no longer feel when I needed the bathroom and I’d wet myself. I was lucky to have been able to control my emotions to an extent but I was very angry, especially because I was the breadwinner. I could no longer support my family.
I struggled to accept this condition. But my son, who was two at the time, was the one who helped me see the light. He’d come into my room and beg me to play with him, even if I didn’t want to. Eventually I started to sit in my wheelchair and go outside and play with him. His happiness was contagious, and it was his light that brought me back to this world.
I began interacting with people again and I realised how much strength I really have. I wanted to regain that, and I decided to buy a set of 2,5kg dumbbells because I was so skinny. When I saw how quickly my muscles developed, I decided to join Oom Charles’ Gym in my neighbourhood. In 2017 I started with weightlifting and a year later I moved to powerlifting.
At the gym I was introduced to Elizabeth Barry, a former powerlifter and a therapist at Cape Recife High School. She became my coach. Elizabeth and so many other athletes in wheelchairs inspired me.
In 2018 I competed in my first powerlifting competition, which I won. Since then I’ve competed in seven more events, winning every time.
I wanted to challenge myself more, which is why I decided to take up bodybuilding. Powerlifting and bodybuilding are similar because both sports involving using weight, but they have different exercises – with powerlifting you use your strength and in bodybuilding you use your physique.
I entered two bodybuilding competitions and was lucky enough to win first place in the wheelchair division of the International Federation of Body Building’s Nelson Mandela Bay Championships and the Southern Cape Spring Classic earlier this month. And now I’ve been invited to the IBFF World Cup on 17 October – by the IBFF president himself.
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I’m so excited and proud of how far I’ve come. Of course, there are lots of challenges, such as finances, my supplements and transport, but I’ve been lucky to get help.
More than that, my journey has taught me so much. I used to be an alcoholic and now, being in a wheelchair, I see things differently. I feel lighter and stronger, and I’m focusing on sport and building my talent.
I’ve been given a second chance. And when you get a second chance at life, make sure you use it because no one knows what’s going to happen. Live your life to the fullest but be careful.
I’ve realised that respect is the key to success. It’s the way forward.
I thank God for this second opportunity because now I can raise my kids and I’m taking part in sports, even though I’m struggling financially. For me, gym has been a saviour and helped me cope with my emotions and make sense of everything. I’m grateful to everyone who introduced me to these sports.”