Report by Monica Guy
8am on Valentine's Day. The heavens open over George, an historic town perched at the eastern end of South Africa's beautiful Western Cape. 625 athletes in wheelchairs, hand cycles and tricycles are lined up at the start of the seventh Outeniqua Wheelchair Challenge, on main avenues shut to traffic.
Everyone is soaked within seconds, but it simply adds to the drama: those entering the 10 km or fun race break into song and perform a warm-up dance in the rain; the athletes intent upon the full 42.2 km marathon or 21.1 km half-marathon simply narrow their eyes against the rain and double-check their racing wheelchairs. It's an extraordinary sight.
Extraordinary because the Outeniqua Wheelchair Challenge is absolutely unique. Competitors must be disabled in some way, and must compete using a mobility-assistive device of some sort; there are 44 categories for the three distances. Those in the 7 km fun race can be pushed by friends or relatives.
But this is completely unlike the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon in Japan or the Seoul International Wheelchair Marathon in Korea, where hundreds of trained, focused athletes line up in top-of-the-range racing wheelchairs intent upon victory and record-breaking. In George, 85 percent of participants are from disadvantaged communities where disability can be stigmatised and facilities are scarce. 80 percent of these are black or coloured. Competing alongside them are world-class sporting celebrities such as the South African Ernst van Dyk, Paralympic champion and world record holder for the wheelchair marathon, and international athletes who have travelled from as far as France, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The age range is 2 years old to an impressive 95.
Inclusion, Community, Achievement, may all be abstract concepts, but they feel palpably real here.
The starting gun bangs and the marathon racers are off. Ernst van Dyk's impossibly broad shoulders are the first to disappear into the misty haze, his arms rhythmically pushing down and away on the wheels of his racing chair like a powerful whiplash. Another gun and the half-marathon competitors shoot out, intent upon catching up. On the other side of the partition, the 10 km racers are jostling to be first in line - a bang and they roll out past the line, wheels all a-tangle, arms pushing frantically. A couple already need help from the mechanics positioned along the route; one young boy whose steering mechanism is twisted holds resolutely on with one hand while pushing with the other. The fun racers pour out behind them - young, old, with varying disabilities and mobility devices, many being pushed by friends and relatives, a couple of young ones even still asleep. The spectators retire out of the rain to one of the excellent stalls offering pancakes or boerewors hot dogs.
The Outeniqua race was started by Esther Watson, a disenchanted occupational therapist who woke up in her home town of George one morning with a vision: a wheelchair marathon to rival any of the world's great sporting challenges.
Twenty-seven wheelchair users competed in the first race, held in 2002 down an improbably steep pass in the nearby Outeniqua mountains. Seven years on, the annual event has attracted a record 625 participants from all of South Africa's nine provinces, as well as international disabled sports men and women. Sponsors come knocking, eager to be involved: Vodacom, Parmalat SA, Kempston Truck Hire, Die Burger newspaper, Powerade drinks, join the George municipality and over 65 smaller sponsors from all over the town and nation. Celebrities Fanie Lombaard (several times Paralympic gold medallist for shot put, discus, pentathlon and javelin), Breyton Paulse (ex-Springbok rugby player) and actor Neels van Jaarsveld are pushing disabled children in the fun race. The voice of Ian Laxton, legendary commentator for the 89 km Comrades Marathon, booms over the PA. It's an astonishing achievement, for which Esther Watson won the Shoprite Checkers/SABC2 Woman of the Year Award in 2006.
It's not for awards and accolades, however, that Esther and her committee of nine volunteer women dedicate their time and effort. "When we started this race in 2002 all we had was a dream," comments Esther..."but if you believe strongly enough in any dream, you can always reach it. Never ever stop dreaming. Never ever stop making changes in people's lives." Truly, these women must never stop, as the logistics of organising such a huge event are daunting. "We had one or two guys, but they dropped out, they couldn't take the pace," says Esther. Then, half tongue-in-cheek: "A man's got to do what a man's got to do...and a woman's got to do what he can't."
The sun breaks through the clouds at 9.20am. In no time at all, the winners of each category begin to cross the finishing line. A ripple of shocked excitement runs through the watching crowds as the marathon winner appears in the distance, flanked by a motorbike and speeding into view at an amazing pace. Instead of the sure favourite Ernst van Dyk, it is the French athlete Denis Lemeunier who will win the race in a time of 1:42:48. His fellow countryman Alain Fuss crosses the line shortly afterwards in a time of 1:44:29. They had been racing close together for most of the race, making the most of each other's slipstream and mutual encouragement.
Van Dyk trails in third with a time of 1:45:20. We learn that he had a puncture which a long time to fix in the bad weather conditions. He is smiling, though, like a true sportsman. He'd told me the night before that he loved this race, since "[i]t really reaches people who wouldn't get the chance otherwise." And he has other things in his sights: if he wins the Boston marathon again in April this year, he will be the first athlete ever to win it an amazing eight times.
If it sounds tacky or clichéd to say that the greatest achievers were those who completed the 10 km and fun races on ordinary manual wheelchairs, tricycles and cobbled-together racing chairs, then it certainly didn't feel that way on that rainy Saturday morning. There was a sense of triumph in the air as we sat around sharing hot corn cobs and steaming plates of potjiekos, a traditional stew being cooking up in vast quantities over smoky open fires.
The SA Dance Team performed on wooden boards in one corner of the field: two beautiful couples twirling each other around the dance floor with an elegance that belied - or was even enhanced by - their wheelchairs. There were songs, speeches, prizes, medals, balloons and finally, of course, the sun.
What a feat. You had to see it to believe it. Go next year, if you can. My utter, enduring respect to all involved.
Challenge Yourself: Outeniqua Wheelchair Challenge, 14 February 2009, George, South Africa
Report by Monica Guy
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