His heart was beating fast. Doem! Doem! Doem! Why did it always feel as if it was beating through his ears, he wondered? Doem! Doem! Doem! At the rate his heart was going you’d think he was terribly nervous. He smiled. He wasn’t nervous. Oh no, he was filled with excited anticipation. He wriggled his shoulders to and fro. He must keep them loose, Jaco thought. He had done a six kilometre warm up, which was great. He wriggled his shoulders again. He needed their mobility. He steadied himself and looked ahead at the road. He moved his fingers on the wheel as he waited for the gunshot that would start them all off. How he loved this race! It wasn’t winning or losing that mattered. It was just being a part of this incredible race. He didn’t have long to wait. BANG! He grinned as his hand cycle surged forward. They were off!
Jaco was a born disabled as a result of complications at birth. He was one of the thousand entries into the Outeniqua Chair Challenge, the OCC. It was started as a fun event by an Occupational Therapist, Esther Watson, who died of leukaemia last November. She wanted to highlight the problems faced by wheelchair dependants. She also wanted to motivate people that were wheelchair bound, to get out of their homes, to see the world outside their own four walls. The OCC which takes place in George, has since mushroomed into one of the most prestigious wheelchair events in South Africa.
Unfortunately this year I was only able to watch the race for the briefest of moments. As I watched I remember thinking: There, but for the grace go God, go I. Not being able to walk was too terrible for words and the wheelchair carried with it bad memories for me. The wheelchair also carried with it all sorts of other connotations. Age and infirmity leered at me with their grotesque heads from the wheelchair’s handles.
That evening this myth was dispelled!
I visited a friend of mine, Nicky, for dinner. She had told me that her sister and husband would be there with a friend. Riani had a smile that was so like Nicky’s. I liked Nicky’s sister instantly. The two men were both in wheelchairs. It was as I shook their hands and introduced myself that I clicked. “The wheelchairs! You were part of the OCC today?”
Jaco, Nicky’s brother in law, answered with a laugh. “I took part in the 21 km marathon. Wentzel didn’t race this year. He hasn’t been well.”
I looked enquiringly at Wentzel who responded, “I raced in 2008, 2010,and 2011.” He gave Jaco a wink. “I came to show them their paces!” he joked.
“He is one of the sports managers at Stellenbosch University,” Jaco said, “and he’s been very much a part of the whole thing.”
Wentzel was a quadriplegic. He broke his neck when he was fifteen years old. Jaco had been disabled from birth. Is it easier for Jaco never knowing what it is like to walk or run? I wondered.
“Why do you race?” I wanted to know. “Your eccentric looking “go-carts” look incredibly dangerous to me. You then proceed to race them hell for leather around George at the most unbelievable speeds! Why?”
“I love the sport,” Jaco replied simply. “The camaraderie amongst the participants takes my breath away and driving my hand cycle fast gives me such an adrenaline rush.”
“That is what makes the sport interesting,” Wentzel added, “One finds oneself tempting fate!”
Why would one do that, I thought? One’s body is so broken already, why on earth would one wish to tempt fate? Ahhhh, but over the course of the evening, speaking to Jaco and Wentzel, I realised that they didn’t consider themselves broken. That ” brokenness” never ever entered into their conversation. Indeed, it never even entered into their lives.
When Jaco was racing, did he look to left and right to gage where he was coming in the race? No, he didn’t. That didn’t concern him. He looked straight ahead, determined to beat his own time. Jaco was racing against himself, I thought. This was confirmed when he said: “It doesn’t matter where I finish, as long as I feel it is…deserved.”
“Jaco has this thing about speed,” interrupted Nix, “I remember him going on the back of a motorbike! He had no control over his legs so we had to tie them onto the bike with his shoe laces!” Nix laughs. “Hell, he had a wonderful time!”
Jaco endearingly called his wife, Riani, my “Woestynblom.” ( my Desert Flower) I loved that! That evening I found myself laughing often. These two men in their wheelchairs seemed to have such a zest for life. There seemed to be this added energy in the room. Most of Jaco and Wentzel’s friends were in wheelchairs like themselves. At one point in the evening, I was informed that when they died they would both be cremated. There was no one in their circle of friends to “carry” a coffin!
I spoke to Nicky after the weekend and she told me that Jaco and Wentzel are a breed of their own. They didn’t speak badly of anyone once. That was a waste of time. Life is incredibly precious to them. We “uprights” waste so much valuable time on negative things.
I thought too about how our society is so concerned about appearances. Often we make judgements based on the physical and in doing so lose the core of a person. Looking at the laughing faces of Jaco and Wentzel that evening, I was reminded of that. I also looked at photographs of the Outeniqua Chair Challenge. They showed men and women who were not able to use their legs. They showed the power of the human spirit to overcome tremendous odds.
They contained such incredible life!
Anyone interested in entering the Outeniqua Wheelchair Challenge in 2015 should contact:
Tel: 079 3974655
Fax: 088 044 873 6766