Every four years the world assembles to compete in the biggest international sporting event. The London 2012 Summer Paralympics, was such a time, one that left a lasting impact on Arnu Fourie’s life. He will never forget the moment where he stood on the podium alongside Oscar Pistorius, Samkelo Radebe and Zivan Smith to receive the gold medal for winning the 4x100m Paralympic relay in a world record time of 41.78 seconds.
Arnu Fourie has always been an outstanding athlete, whose ultimate dream was to play rugby for the Springboks. He was well on his way to achieve his dream. In his matric year, he was offered a contract by the Lions to play professional rugby for them. Arnu was a top academic student and he just started dating a beautiful blonde girl. Life was perfect, all seemed to be going according to plan.
After completing three of his matric final exam papers, he had a twelve-day break and decided to go on a quick trip to Rustfonteindam just outside of Bloemfontein. Joined by some of his best friends they were set to make this trip a memorable outing, since they will no longer be together after their final school year. Arnu will be playing professional rugby in Johannesburg and the rest will be studying at the University of Stellenbosch.
Despite Arnu’s excellent motor abilities, he seemed to struggle finding his balance on his kneeboard. One moment he was on the kneeboard and the next, splash, he was covered in water. The boys were having lots of fun. Those on the boat started to chat with the others still on their kneeboards, tied to the back of the boat, as the boat turned around to fetch Arnu. But, they miss calculated the distance between them and where Arnu was patiently waiting to be rescued. “It was a split second from realising that the boat was not going to stop. After my leg got stuck under the boat I knew that my leg was amputated.”
A perfect summer holiday turned into a dreadful experience. There was blood everywhere and the boys were in a state of panic. They were 70km away from the nearest hospital thus waiting for an ambulance was not an option. The person, who drove the boat over Arnu’s leg, now had to drive the car to Bloemfontein with his friend at the back of the car covered in blood.
Arnu’s perfect life plan was shattered! He only had one dream. “I could see myself running onto the field as part of the Springbok team, and then singing the national anthem representing my country.” That dream ended! He now had to start to live plan B.
“I joked with the guys in the car on the way to the hospital, ‘Now I can’t play rugby anymore so I have to come to Stellenbosch with you” (Arnu did manage to go with them to study at the University of Stellenbosch- a miracle in itself. He studied Bcom Accounting and graduated in 2006. He continued with his honours degree and completed it through UNISA in 2008. Currently Arnu is working for Graham Power as an accountant.)
The day after his accident, his stepdad came to visit him in hospital, and told him about the amputee world record. “That was the worst things he could have said at the time. I didn’t want to hear the word disabled!”
Arnu and I used to attend the same church at Stellenbosch. I knew him as the guy who would be collecting the offering and greeting everyone at the door. I remember my friends at church talking about the guy who competed in the Beijing Paralympics. It took me a while to figure out that they were talking about Arnu. Arnu never boasted about his accomplishments and I never knew that he had a prosthetic leg, until one afternoon after church when we went for a picnic and he was wearing shorts. I was shocked, and I think I only then managed to figure out that Arnu was the Paralympian. (Churchy nerd girl at the time did not know much about athletics and ashamedly placed Arnu in the church -accounting student- box.) “For three years I never showed my prosthetic leg in public. My first goal was to perfect my walking because I did not want people to know about my leg”
Arnu gave his heart to the Lord at a very young age. “I always tried to do the right things but in hindsight I was trapped in works and rugby was number one in my life. When rugby was taken away from me, only then did I realise that Jesus was never the foundation that I build my life on, rugby was. Everything thus came tumbling down.” More than dealing with a prosthetic leg he now had to figure out what his purpose in life was because rugby was no more.
After his accident, he started playing disabled golf and even participated in the SA championships. He found it to be too social as a competitive former rugby player. Arnu met Suzanne Ferreira his current athletics coach in his first year at Stellenbosch. “She always encourage me to come try out running on the track but at that time I just ran to get rid of all my frustrations.” Suzanne finally succeeded in convincing Arnu to start to run competitively. In 2007 he participated in his first SA tournament and in 2008 he qualified to represent his country at the Beijing Paralympics. “Walking into the stadium at the opening ceremony with 80 000 people looking at you… Halfway through the ceremony I started to cry. Five years later after my accident, I realised that this was it. I could hear the still small voice of God saying “This is not plan B; this is your Plan A.”
Arnu came fourth in the 100m and sixth in the 200m. He did not bring back any medals but he found purpose in life again. “I stopped living my life as if I was on plan B, with all the regret and what should have been and I started to live my Plan A. I started to dream again.”
Four years later, Arnu participated in his second Paralympic games. This time around, he came home with two medals. He won bronze in the 100m and gold in the 4x100m relay running the third leg. “Standing on the podium with the rest of my relay team, watching the flag raise and singing the national anthem. I got a flash back of my childhood dream of running onto the rugby field and singing the national anthem. This time I heard the still small voice of the God whisper in my heart ‘I did not forget!” I realised in that moment that this was my dream. It was however packaged different from what I thought it would look like.”
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28.
I am not implying that God set out for Arnu to lose his leg but what I do know is that God never forgot a little boy’s dream. He orchestrated things so that the core of the dream in Arnu’s heart still came to past.
Arnu married Carѐne Zaayman in December 2009, his high school sweetheart, the same pretty girl he started dating three months before his accident. Other than being emotional about marrying the girl of his dreams standing on his left side, on his right side was his best man, making a toast to him and his bride. His best friend who steered the boat over his leg in 2003 and drove him to the hospital, stood next to him as his best man at his wedding. In that moment, Arnu was marked by true friendship as both his best friends were holding his hands, ready to walk another mile.
Arnu and I sat at the Botanical gardens in Stellenbosch as he relived his accident and life to this point. Moreover, he also had a moment to share his dreams for Rio 2016. In September this year, Arnu will be participating in his third Paralympic games. He hope to bring back the gold medal for the 100m sprint. The journey from London to now was however not smooth. For two years after London, Arnu was plagued with injuries and he could hardly compete in any sport events. He even had to undergo an operation for his knee. I was reminded that no one was guaranteed and easy life without challenges and obstacles. “It is these moments that made me who I am today” “Someone asked me if I am over protective with my son, and I answered NO! I know that when he falls, he will get up again and he will be stronger than before…We need to learn to embrace the tough moment of life”
I asked Arnu to share some tips on how to overcome difficult times and built resilience, since I know we can all relate to this part of his story. Here is what he had to say:
- Do not try to get out of your situation but allow God to take you through it.
- Make sure you deal with things before you move on. “It took me a while to deal with things. I only realised in Beijing that I was living my life with a plan B mentality.”
- Having a support structure is crucial. You cannot go through difficulties by yourself.
- Allow yourself the time to grieve and mourn.
- Moving on from a difficult situation is impossible without God. “God brings forgiveness and healing and God gives purpose. Even though God gives all of this it remains your responsibility to take it.”
Over the Easter Holiday, I was thinking of Jesus and his life on earth. Being born in a stable with the purpose to die a humiliating painful death on a cross does not seem like a plan A life. Yet, that was but one side of the coin. His purpose however was, yes to die, but to die as an eternal ransom for our sin. He died so we can live. More than 2000 years later, we remember and celebrate his death. I think Nelson Mandela also did not feel like he was living the plan A of his life when he sat in prison for 27 years. Those years prepared him to be one of the World’s most renowned presidents and leaders.
I was also reminded of the following Bible scriptures:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”- Isaiah 55: 8
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeramiah 29:11
If you are sitting with dreams in your heart that might seem that, they are impossible to reach or that it might have been stolen by circumstances. I want to urge you to remember Arnu’s story and hold on to your faith. Live your Plan ‘A’ life although it might not feel like it. Keep on dreaming beyond what the eye can see and your mind can conceive as possible. With God all things are possible and dreams do come true.