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.

Wired Dif­fer­ently

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.

New Con­trols

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.

Train­ing Wheels

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.

Another Chal­lenge

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.”

The An­swer

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.

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