A quadriplegic Iron Man? Well, it’s really happening
The athlete lost the function of his limbs after he was hit by a car while cycling, but he says he is ‘still running’
For most people the very idea of competing in the Ironman 70.3 World Champs is a mere pipe dream, but Pieter du Preez – a C6 quadriplegic – was taking on the challenge using only his wrists, biceps and shoulders.
Johannesburg resident Du Preez said the past weekend’s race was also an opportunity to inspire physically limited athletics to break boundaries.
Du Preez, 38, lost the function of his limbs after he was hit by a car while cycling in 2003, but quadriplegia has neither impaired his passion for athletics nor stopped him from breaking multiple records in the sports arena.Du Preez said: “I’m a man of faith. I believe I was meant to be a quad, so I never stopped. I started playing wheelchair rugby while in rehab and I started doing sport as soon as I could because I realised that the sooner I started the stronger I would get.
“I’m fortunate that I was a physical guy who loved sports even before the accident. I have never looked back and I never asked questions about why it happened. I’m still running, just in a different way.”
The triathlete was partly inspired to rise above his circumstances by his longtime coach, Port Elizabeth’s Raynard Tissink, who constantly showed him videos of a paraplegic competing in Ironman.Tissink is a retired international Ironman champion with more than 30 finishes, four top 10 finishes and eight wins.
“[The videos] sort of planted the seed in my mind that maybe I could become the first quad to do triathlons although I didn’t imagine doing Ironman yet,” Du Preez said.
Du Preez cycles, swims and races (runs) using only his wrists, biceps and shoulders, with no hand, finger and tricep function. He is also paralysed from the chest down. He uses hand bikes for cycling and a racing chair.
Tissink was aiding Du Preez during the swimming part of the race.
“For daily living I’m independent but my wife helps me a lot with getting into the racing chair ... I also do get help from handlers with racing and swimming,” said the father of one.
Du Preez’s first Ironman race was in 2013 when he completed in six hours and 36 minutes, his fastest race on record. This weekend, he was gunning for 6.5 hours.
Du Preez broke a record when he became the first quadriplegic in the world to do a half Ironman race in May 2013, and again when he did a full Ironman in December that same year.
Sadly, he could not finish this past Saturday's race.But he has many achievements. The four-time hand bike world champion broke the 10,000m world record in the racing chair in 2015.
“The thing for me has always been to get a slot for world champs to get [athletics officials] to see that quads can actually do this and hopefully change the way they create a qualification for para-athletes. A lot of people don’t get that, even though I make things look easier, just living life for a quadriplegic is hard.”
While Du Preez pushes against all odds, he acknowledges that he does not enjoy the same freedom as able-bodied athletes.
“Before the accident I was always in front but now, as good as I am, I’m in front when I race against other quads but when I compete or ride with able-bodies or paraplegics I’m slow – but the more I train the faster I get.
“I’m quite comfortable with knowing that what I’ve achieved is incredible. Above everything, for me, is the belief that if you really want to do something, you will make it happen,” Du Preez said.