Pieter du Preez went from a crippling accident to conquering the Ironman
Paralysed in an accident, Pieter du Preez was told about everything he couldn’t do. He kept his eyes on what he could
FFIFTY- ONE MINUTES. That was how long it took Pieter du Preez to dress himself the first time after his accident. He wrestled with what he had – as a C6 quadriplegic he was limited to using only his shoulders, biceps and wrists – wracking his brain to find solutions to problems that hadn’t existed just months earlier. People told him would never be able to dress himself. Instead of becoming dispirited, Pieter took it as a challenge – that all he had to do was figure out the controls in this foreign vehicle that was now
his body – and he would get there. Eventually.
He had set himself the target of getting dressed in less than 15 minutes. It was a strict cut-off. He’d battle every morning, putting into practice ideas he’d conceptualised the night before, then handing over the reigns to his carer when the clock hit zero.
Within weeks, he had hit his target. Weeks later he was getting dressed in seven minutes. Now, it takes him just 2 minutes and 41 seconds.
“It was this: just going through the basics and hearing people tell me I would never do this or that,” he says. “That’s when I started believing I was up to any challenge.”
In 2013, he made the record books – becoming the first quadriplegic to finish an Ironman.
Lying face down on the tarmac, Pieter felt surprisingly calm. A motorist had knocked him off his bicycle during a training ride to the chiropractor. And now he was flat on the ground, aware that something was very wrong.
“It was incredible how calm I actually was,” he says. “The motorist was screaming and shouting and I was just telling her to calm down, that it was okay, that I forgive her.”
This sense of calm would prevail, even after the X-rays, after he lost control of his eyesight, after it returned, after the doctors told him he had broken his neck and would never walk again, after he found out that his wrists, biceps and shoulders would be his only tools, after a medically-induced coma, after sporadic rehab sessions that felt too short and after returning home and realising the enormity of the challenge ahead of him.
“A lot of guys fall into depression or live in denial and then fall apart when the reality of the situation hits them,” he says. “For some reason my brain was wired differently. I just always saw it as a challenge.”
At the time of the accident, Pieter was a top university student and a rising sports star who had qualified for the SA team in both cycling and triathlon. His friends call him SuperPiet.
“It might sound cocky, but it didn’t matter what I did, I was always pretty good at it.”
He had lofty ambitions and a competitive streak, with the grades and accolades to back it up. It’s why he was on his bike on the 6th of October, 2003, fitting in a training ride on his way to the chiropractor. The accident may have taken away his movement, but it didn’t put a dent in his attitude.
When he left rehab Pieter was certain of one thing: he wanted to be independent. No carers or tools; he was going to leverage what he had. “People told me constantly, that I can’t do it,” he says.
That’s how getting dressed became his Everest. The more he was told it was impossible, the more he began to believe he could crack the 15-minute mark. “I would wake up at 2am with ideas running through my head,” he laughs. “I had thoughts like, if I need to go to the bathroom, I wanted to be able to go anywhere, and by myself.”
With practice, a bit of ingenuity and a lot of trial and error, he figured out the new controls to his body. And he did it all while finishing his degree, then starting a new job.
“I started believing,” he says. “Why can’t teach I myself how to swim? Why don’t I give cycling a go?”
He started training again.
They don’t build bikes for quads. Unlike swimming – “I got into the water and I was already moving” – cycling was an engineering challenge, not just a physical one. His wife, an occupational therapist, became his mechanic, brainstorming solutions to the unique challenges created by his limited mobility.
“It was a big challenge not to get frustrated,” he says. “Because you have to just sit back and wait. But my wife took my frustrations in her stride, and together we figured it out.”
On his first ride on his modified bike, controlling the gears and brakes with his elbows and forearms, he cycled for 2km.
“I was dead. It’s difficult to explain how weak I was,” he says. “But every day you get faster.”
Much faster. Since then he’s been crowned world champion in handcycling, three times; and a national champion in wheelchair racing; became a multiple record holder in 200m, 800m, 1 500m, 5 000m and marathon events; snagged the world record for the 10 000m; finished the Midmar Mile twice; was crowned Berlin Marathon Champion five times; dominated the Padua International Marathon four times; became the course record holder in the Oita marathon championship; placed sixth in 100m 2012 Paralympics in London; and even became the first person with a spinal cord injury in history to complete the Robben Island crossing.
But no achievement stands out more for Pieter than becoming first quadriplegic ever to conquer the Ironman triathlon.
It was 2013, and Pieter was a man who believed anything was possible after he tore through his first half-Ironman with hours to spare.
“I did it so fast,“he says. “I knew I could take on the full route.“
He signed up and started training. He trained for 40 to 42 hours a week, with his time divided between the three disciplines. He was on track to make history.
“But during a training ride out at the Cradle, a rookie rider did a U-Turn in front of me and we collided,” he says.
His bike flipped, and he was left lying on the road with a broken arm. For a moment it looked
“A lot of guys fall into depression or live in denial and then fall apart when the reality of the situation hits them.”
like weeks of training had been erased in a single fateful second. “I think I lay on the ground frustrated for all of five minutes,” he says. “And again I told myself, this is just another challenge.”
A plate was screwed into his arm, but living with a cast for two weeks didn’t stop him from training. He used his other arm to put in fiveand six-hour sessions on an indoor trainer.
When the cast finally came off, he went straight back to the pool. “That first swim was agony,“he says. “I was crying because of the pain, but luckily the water hid my tears. I didn’t want to show my wife and my teammate how much I was hurting.”
Two weeks later he hit the road for the first time – and finished a 100km ride.
“I made the call. I was going to do this.”
When Pieter sat there on the beach, at the start of the Ironman race, he knew he was going to set a world record. He says he was arrogant, but he just felt unstoppable. Crossing the finish line after 13 hours and 24 minutes of gruelling pushing and swimming, he was overcome with emotion. The tears came again, this time, of joy.
“The world didn’t realise what I did on that day,“he says. “But it meant the world to me.”
In May, he took on the global Wings for Life race. The funds raised by the event will go towards funding spinal cord injury research aiming to find a cure.
Would Pieter want a cure? “For others, definitely. For myself, I’m not sure I’d say yes anymore,” he says. “But I know that for so many other people it would be life-changing, not just for the person with the injury, but for their friends, for their family. They all suffer along with them, too.”
Pieter is already eyeing up new challenges, new ways to test his mind, to test the restrictions of his body. Thirteen years ago they told him he wouldn’t be able to dress himself, now he hears far fewer people telling him no.
“I’ve learnt that when something bad happens, it’s an opportunity to do something great. You’re always just a mindshift away from finding a solution to a problem. In one mindset you might be closed off, in the other, you are open; you are ready to find the answer.”
He’s found his answer: in a triumph of medicine, Pieter recently became a dad.
“The world didn’t realise what I did on that day But it meant everything to me.”
THEY SEE ME ROLLIN’ Paralysis hasn’t dented Pieter du Preez’ positivity.
MADE OF IRON Pieter’s technologically advanced vehicle may enable movement, but it can’t give him the one thing he needs most: sheer bloody-mindedness.