The Paralympic Games are not only about bright colours, cheering crowds, victories and medals.
Somewhere on the stretch between the start and the finish line, on the fringe of the spotlight focused on the winner’s podium, in the heart of an athlete alone in his room, there is often also a battle with fear, the heavy weight of expectations and the simple desire to be good enough – with or without a medal.
When Fanie van der Merwe lined up for the T37 100m event in Rio for the last time in his Paralympic career, he did so as an athlete who has known the joys of victory and the taste of defeat.
He did so as an athlete who has battled fear and disappointment and whose athletics career, which includes three Paralympic gold medals, has shaped him and his relationship with God in a very significant way.
And on Sunday, he won the bronze in the 100m in Rio.
Fanie, who suffers from cerebral palsy, never thought disability sport would become his career.
“I used to be very offended when people said I was disabled. I was crazy about sport and felt my disability was holding me back – it was almost like a curse. Then the Lord showed me that the thing I thought was preventing me from reaching my full potential was actually the thing that was opening doors. The curse was actually a blessing.”
In 2006, as a first-year Sport Science student at Stellenbosch University, Fanie became part of a core group of athletes preparing for the Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008. He started his Paralympic career with a bang, winning both the 100m and 200m in the T37 class.
He beat local favourite Ma Yuxi to take the 100m crown, and managed to fend off the field in the 200m even though he became very spastic and started losing rhythm in the last 50 metres of the race.
“On that day a friend sent me a message that God will lift up my feet,” he recalls. Spasticity – when muscles stiffen, contract or spasm involuntarily – and the fear of not knowing when this will happen are some of the greatest battles an athlete with cerebral palsy has to face. Stress worsens the situation.
Fanie experienced this at the worst possible moment.
At the Paralympic Games in London in 2012 he was the first South African athlete to compete. He was the defending champion, the world record holder in the 200m and the favourite to win. He led the field for the first 150 metres.
In the last few seconds of the race, five competitors passed him.
“That was probably one of the toughest things I have ever had to deal with. There were so many expectations and I felt that I had disappointed people.”
That evening, the race ran through his head – over and over and over again.
“My whole life I yearned to be accepted for who I am. I thought I had to perform to earn that acceptance. And then I realised: I don’t have to perform to earn God’s love – He loves me anyway. He restored me and gave me peace.”
When Fanie lined up for the 100m, he did so with the knowledge that he could run freely, without pressure.
In the last 10 metres he and Liang Yongbin of China were side by side. He realised that a dip over the finish line wouldn’t be enough. So he dove. And won gold.
“I was so grateful for the whole experience. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. It was a big breakthrough for me.”
His dream for Rio was to give his all and do his best.
“This year has been a bonus for me and I’m grateful for everything I’ve achieved and experienced. I want to embrace this last opportunity. The result is not important. If I’m not successful by the world’s standards, that is also great. I said to the Lord: May my athletics be what you want it to be.”
Fanie will retire after the Paralympic Games.
“I’ve had a good career but it’s time to move on. I’ve been coaching since 2010 and want to invest more time in that. The need is big and the people are few. I would like to help other people achieve their dreams.”
He is looking forward to exploring the opportunities of sport ministry. He and his brother Chris founded Inspired2Become (I2B), an NGO that focuses on youth development in 2010. Fanie coaches and serves as mentor while Chris, a professional inline rollerblader, teaches rollerblading, skateboarding and skimboarding. The I2B Skatepark is in Somerset West.
Fanie is also a member of the Stellenbosch Sport Ambassadors initiative.
“Working with young people is my passion. I want to share the experience I’ve gained over the years and how it shaped my relationship with God.”
Fanie competed in the heats of the T37 100m on Saturday September 10, and took the bronze medal in the final of the event on Sunday September 11.
* Pia Nänny is the Maties Sport media coordinator, and a freelance journalist and translator.