29 AUGUST 2012
Turning tragedy into triumph
Achmat Hassiem. Photo: www.achmat.com.
9 years ago, Achmat Hassiem took part in a in a lifeguard training session that changed his life.
The lifesaver had his right leg bitten off below the knee by a great white shark at Sunrise Beach in Muizenberg.
On Wednesday, the Cape Town swimmer, 30, will be among 62 athletes holding aloft the South African flag at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
His journey from the attack to London has been swift and positive, and culminated in the South African swimming champ tweeting this week: “South African flag flying high in the village! Watch out, world, we are here! Go, Team SA!”
He later said: “The athletes’ village has a prosthetic and wheelchair repair and alterations shop. Guess who’s getting their leg pimped? Thank you.”
Hassiem is one of several athletes in the South African squad who have turned tragedy into triumph — and who will be competing against Paralympians from across the world in the 12-day global showpiece.
Some of the others are:
- Rower Sandra Khumalo, 31, who was paralysed from the waist down after an accident six years ago. He will be participating in the handcycling;
- Wheelchair basketball player Justin Govender lost the use of both legs in a shooting at the age of 17. He was previously a footballer;
- Siphamandla Gumbi, 35, left an operating theatre unable to use his legs after the removal of an abscess from his spine in 1986. He will be competing in wheelchair basketball; and
- Athlete Arnu Fourie, 27, lost his left leg in a motorboat accident at the end of his matric year in 2003. He will be participating in the sprints.
Hassiem’s mother, Thoraiya, a deputy principal, said her son had a fighting spirit. “God rewarded him in other ways — by giving him the ability to motivate people, showing there is life after an accident,” she said.
Speaking from the athletes’ village, Fourie, from Stellenbosch, said he was confident of bagging a medal, after being placed fourth and sixth in the previous Games in Beijing in 2008.
“I have worked very hard in the last four years to compete for those medals. Beijing was more of an experience,” he said.
He works in the finance department of a construction company and will participate in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay.
“People told me of disabled sport when I was in hospital, and I didn’t want to hear anything about it. I then started running and saw some potential. The biggest thing was making peace with being a disabled guy. I realised God had awesome plans for me to achieve victory again.”
Clinical and sports psychologist Kirsten van Heerden said that some of the athletes’ personal tragedies had spurred them on to succeed. She said that almost all who had gone through their personal trauma said it was the best thing that could have happened to them.
Counselling psychologist Lesley-Anne Pedlar, who had prepared some of the athletes before they left, said: “None of them feel sorry for themselves or see themselves as victims. They see themselves as different — but not any less capable than anyone else. They manage to alter their self-image into something constructive.”
South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) CEO Tubby Reddy said it was hoped the team would win 40 medals this time — an improvement from 30 in Beijing. He said many of the athletes were ranked among the top three or four in the world.
Runner Oscar Pistorius will also join the team. The Blade Runner made history when he became the first disabled athlete to compete in the 400m and 4x400m relay at the Olympics. He is scheduled to participate in the several events.
The Games start on Wednesday and run until September 9.