Reader Profile - Quadriplegic claims triathlon world first
Pieter Du Preez is celebrating! He has become the world’s first quadriplegic athlete to complete an Ironman 70.3 event. Pieter accomplished this world first on 26 May in Australia. It all took place at the seaside town of Busselton, which was chosen for its flat course. Pieter was the only quadriplegic competing against a field of athletes, including an Australian Olympian. He did not only finish but left about 150 able-bodied athletes trailing in his wake.
Pieter completed the Busselton course in an incredible six hours and 36 minutes, smashing his personally set target of seven hours and 30 minutes. He completed the sea swim in 54 minutes; spent three hours and 55 minutes on the bike and completed the run in one hour 33 minutes. He fulfilled a personal ambition of becoming the first C6 quadriplegic athlete, to complete in what is one of the most demanding events in any sports calendar.
To take part in the event required much more than just pitching up in Perth. His participation required that the organisers allowed him to be assisted at various points along the course. His challenges included having someone swim behind him to ‘tap’ his legs so that he can maintain direction in the sea swim. This is because his triceps muscles don’t function, so he can’t swim crawl like an able-bodied competitor. His preferred stroke is ‘double-armed backstroke’. Getting out of the water and into his specially adapted bike also required assistance. In addition, he was allowed to have two people helping him in the transition area between legs of the race. From then on, he had to rely on sheer ‘biceps and shoulder power’ to propel himself the remaining 111.1 kilometers of the event. Assistance on the road required the usual drinks and, in Pieter’s case, a drenching from a bucket of water to cool him down. Due to the nature of his disability, he doesn’t sweat - so there is a real danger that without a regular watering down, his body will overheat. Just before the race day, Pieter got the flu and for a while it looked like the sea swim would be too difficult because of the weather conditions. However, on the day, the sea was calm, his flu had cleared and Pieter was ready.
During the race, with 35 kilometers left of the 90km bike leg that potential disaster struck again. There was a puncture on one of his hand bike’s three tyres. “I thought I had hit the wall, as I didn’t hear the tyre go,” Pieter recalls. “Luckily, with the hand bike you have two large tyres at the back and it was one of those that went. It slowed me down, but I was able to finish riding on the flat tyre – it would have taken too long to stop and fix it.” Despite this, however, he still managed to cycle the course at an average speed of 23km/h.
“I also lost about 10 minutes during the running portion of the event as the track was narrow and I was slowed down by people who were slower than me. Besides those things, I had a good event and became the first quad in the world to finish a half Ironman event – that is something that nobody can ever take away from me. I may have been dizzy and unable to see due to dehydration when I crossed the line, but I did it.”
“I smashed it,” he says, a smile spread over his face. “I thought it was going to be toughest thing I had ever tried in my life, but it wasn’t. I think that I was so ready and fit for this. A couple of things made it harder for me, but I now have no doubt in my mind that I can do a full Ironman.”
“The race did what it was meant to do. It made me believe that I could do an Ironman - the greatest dream of my life. I have been given an opportunity to do what most people would consider are impossible things. By doing them, I believe that I am encouraging others to tackle what they believe is impossible,” he says. Back in his office at Deloitte, Johannesburg where he works as a senior actuarial analyst, Pieter du Preez had another piece of news waiting. He was notified that he has been chosen to don the green and gold and turn out for South Africa’s team of hand-cyclists who will be competing in World Cup events in Italy and Spain.
Adding to his motivation was the support he received from colleagues, tweeted messages and encouragement from the athletes on the day. Most of his appreciation is, however, reserved for his wife, Ilse, and the people who helped him during the 200 training sessions he had before leaving for Australia.
Questioned about whether his fellow South Africans could expect to see Pieter’s performance featured in the Guinness Book of Records, he admits that it never occurred to him to make an application before the event. If the publishers will accept documentation and consider the achievement on a retrospective basis, this could well take place, he says. In the meantime, ‘Supa Piet’, as he has been christened by his colleagues at Deloitte, is riding high.