“They said I’d never be able to walk.”
If Samantha Stander, 22, had believed what others had told her, she might never have walked – let alone run.
By Samantha Stander
Covered in sweat and mud, my legs burning with effort and the noise of the crowd ringing in my ears, I could hardly believe it. Could this really be me – the girl who’d been told she’d never be able to walk – making it to the finish line of the epic Grind Obstacle Course Race?
“It would be no exaggeration to say that pain has been my lifetime companion. At birth, I was diagnosed with Developmental Dysplasia of the Hip (DDH), a condition that meant that my hip joints would never develop properly. The doctors predicted that I would never be able to walk.
“I spent the first 15 months of my life in an uncomfortable cast, which was supposed to hold my hips in their correct position, but it seemed to have no effect. Then, on 23 December 1994, at 16 months, I took my first steps – much to my mother’s surprise. She says she had no idea how it happened, but those steps were the best early Christmas gift she could’ve received.
“Growing up with a disability meant becoming used to constant pain. It also meant that I walked differently, couldn’t run around at breaks, and wasn’t able to play the usual school games. As a result, my childhood was filled with bullying, from children making fun of me to complaining that I took up too much space as I had to sit with my legs straight out on the floor, rather than crossed, during storytime.
“Luckily, my parents Beverley and Wessel stood up for me and spoke to
the teachers and principal. My small group of supportive friends made me feel accepted, and I devoted myself to cultural activities, like art, debating, and writing poetry and short stories – all wonderful ways to express myself and escape the limitations I felt.
“I was 15 when I decided I wasn’t going to let other people’s attitudes limit me. I applied to be on the school paper, got involved in first aid and, despite my inability to run, went to hockey trials. To everyone’s surprise, I was quite good, and I was picked as goalkeeper for the third team. My teammates were sceptical at first, but my enthusiasm and skill made them warm up to me.
“In 2012, I left my hometown of Cradock in the Eastern Cape to study medicine at Stellenbosch University. Coming from a small town with just a few fast-food restaurants, I was overwhelmed by the choices! I loved Mcdonald’s so much that I ate two meals at a time and by the end of first year, I’d gained 30kg. Then, one day, I looked in the mirror and decided that I had to do something about my body!
“I signed up for the gym, and the staff noticed that I was struggling with the equipment and offered to help, but I assured them that I knew my limits. If things became too much, I would stop.
“Despite my bravado, though, it was incredibly difficult, and the pain was so intense that I felt as if I was going to die. But there was no turning back. I had to exercise for my physical and emotional wellbeing, and however hard it was, I knew that it would get better.
“I’d been at gym for four months when I saw a flyer in the locker room for a 5km race in Cape Town. I wanted to put more effort into my fitness, as I’d hardly done any walking or running and I had never forgotten the feeling of having to sit out during PE at school.
“My friend Natasha Fredericks and I had set a 2015 goal to improve our fitness, and I showed her the flyer and asked her to tackle the race with me. At first, she was sceptical, and I understood why: running has always been a struggle for me. But, being supportive, she agreed, even though we knew that we would probably be slow.
“The race day dawned and Natasha and I felt nervous, but very excited. We were new to the world of running and chose to look at the race as an adventure. But it was even harder than I’d expected, and the only thing that got me through was encouragement from Natasha and the race marshals.
“When it was all over, I limped to the car and collapsed in the seat, hardly able to even lift my hands. I’d never been so exhausted. But I was also hooked on the adrenaline and endorphins.
“Two weeks later, I took on the 5km Pick n Pay Women’s Walk, and a few months after that, I signed up for the 10km trail run at Delheim Wine Estate with my friends Natasha and Kelly Daniels, who always encouraged me and made sure that I never ran alone.
“I didn’t always know what I was letting myself in for, but I wanted to feel good about myself, and I was determined to keep challenging my body. It wasn’t always easy: 6km into the Delheim trail, I twisted my ankle, and the throbbing pain combined with anger and disappointment in myself. But I was lucky that in addition to being an awesome cheerleader and fellow runner, Natasha is a physiotherapy student. She used my shoelaces to stabilise my foot, and she and Kelly helped me cross the finishing line.
“Running became my great love and the weight started falling off, too. It was so great to be able to wear smaller sizes, going from an XXXL tights to a large.
“My 2016 fitness goal was to do an obstacle course race, and at the end of February, I contacted Mat Barlett, the founder of the Grind Obstacle Course Race. I was worried that my DDH would prevent me from competing, but Mat was very supportive, and he introduced me on the Grind’s Facebook page as their first brand ambassador, which led to an offer of help from the obstacle course racing athlete Dominique D’oliveira. Over the next month, she taught me ways to tackle the obstacles and how to look at things from a new perspective. I’d want to give up, but she made me stronger and gave me faith.
“When April arrived, I was so anxious about the race that I burst into tears 10 minutes before the start. I hadn’t anticipated how hard it would be: we had to climb over containers and tubes, and I struggled to pull myself up and climb down. When I got to the water obstacles, I slipped on the lily pads and wanted to give up, but something inside me said ‘Not today you won’t!’, and a surge of adrenaline rushed through my body. I was part of Team Limitless, which consisted of famous obstacle course athletes, my friends, sister and disabled athletes, and they encouraged me at every obstacle.
“When I tell strangers about my disability, they look at me in disbelief. But that’s the point: I want to show people that we can all achieve so much more than we think we can. I went from not being able to climb a flight of stairs to running races and doing an obstacle course. Next up is the Cape Argus Cycle Tour – I’ve even bought a bicycle!”
“I decided I wasn’t going to let other people’s attitudes limit me.”
“I want to show people that we can all achieve so much more than we think we can.”