Hendri Herbst is a South African Paralympic swimmer. The 24 year old came third in the 100m freestyle and added a bronze medal to team SA’s collection at the London 2012 Paralympics. Recently, he won the 50m, and came second in the 100m freestyle at the 2016 European Champs, while recovering from a shoulder injury. He is managing his injury, and hopes to continue his podium performance during the Rio Paralympics, and bring back a few medals.
Hendri grew up in Letsitele close to Tzaneen, in the Northern part of South Africa. The area is known for its tropical weather, thus the Herbst family had a large swimming pool. For that reason, when Hendri was only six weeks old, he partook in a drown proof course as a precaution due to his bad eye sight. From that moment onward, he basically grew up in the swimming pool.
When Hendri was five years old his family moved to the Western Cape. At age 15 he joined the local swimming club, and not long after that he received his Western Province provincial swimming colours. In 2009 he participated in his first international tournament, and in his matric year, 2010 he swam in the World Championships. With a few
successful international tournaments behind his name and a school career that came to its end, Hendri decided to come to Stellenbosch University. Unlike most students, his main goal for coming to the university was not to obtain a degree, but to pursue qualifying for London 2012. Nonetheless, in 2011 he enrolled for Socio-informatics and graduated in 2013. He kept his eye on his goal, and qualified to represent his country in four items at the London Paralympics. Hendri made the finals for three of the events and won a bronze medal for the 100m freestyle, “dit was ‘n belewenis.”
Being able to win a medal in his first Paralympic Games was indeed a glorious moment, considering that the sacrifice went beyond merely spending hours and hours in the swimming pool. It was the everyday courage to choose life, and the abundance thereof. (I came that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly- John 10:10).
Hendri was born with glaucoma, meaning that the optic nerve at the back of his eye was slowly being destroyed. Fortunately, his dad is a medical doctor and noticed that there was something wrong with his eyes when he was only two days old. At first Hendri was able to see clearly and he slowly started to lose his sight over the years, “dis asof jy sand in jou hand het, and it basically slips through your fingers.”
Hence, Hendri attended a mainstream school until grade six, and then moved to a school for the blind. At the age of 12 years old his sight started to change drastically, and at about 14 years old he was completely blind.
“Ek het opgehou tel by operasie 45…my laaste operasie was toe ek 14 jaar oud was.”
I can only imagine how perplexed and fearful he must have been during those early stages. The many questions floating around in his head: Why me, why now…? When I, Bianca, look back at being 12-14 years old, it was such an uncertain phase of my own life. I remember that my eyes started to strain a lot, and I had many headaches. Consequently, I received my first pair of glasses in grade six. I had big glasses and on top of it, my face looked like a pineapple with all the zits it was covered with. Erick Erickson, developmental psychologist, states that the psychosocial crisis that a person should master during his/her adolescent years (12-18) is that of identity versus role confusion. Key questions such as “who am I?”, and “where do I fit in?” are being dealt with. It seems like I never really graduated from this stage…oops!! At age 32, I am still asking those questions, and even without the big classes and pineapple face, I might still carry some of the feelings of being the ugly nerdy girl.
However, Hendri knew one thing about himself at that crucial age. He knew that he loved being in the water, and he knew that he could swim. He might have lost his sight, but he was able to recognise that he did not lose his legs and his arms. He could still swim! “Swem het my gehelp, dit was n platform om myself te bewys.” Many times when we experience a tragedy or a loss, we seem to internalise that all is wrong with the world, and we tend to sulk in a corner feeling sorry for ourselves. Hendri shared that his parents never allowed him to feel sorry for himself, and sit and sulk in a corner. There was no differentiation in treatment between him and his older brother, “ek was groot gemaak met die houding van dat die lewe skuld jou niks.”
He recalls looking for his shoes and going to his parents telling them that he could not find his shoes. His dad would then simply tell him that he needs to open his eyes and go look for them again. Hendri gave the biggest smile and
said, “Ek gaan toe maar terug en wragtig, daar kry ek my pantoffels”. At times the tough love might not have been easy to give, or to receive, but Hendri’s parents knew that they could not raise him to be dependent on them. He was too talented to sit at home and feel helpless. They did achieve their goal; as he is traveling the world with his guide dog Stan; he is engaged to a beautiful woman; and he is busy with his second degree at Stellenbosch University. He is also a Paralympics medalist: The highest honour in an individual sport like swimming.
For five years Hendri had to walk without his guide dog, Stan. One is only able to apply for a guide dog from the age of eighteen. After waiting for so many years it took eighteen more months after applying for the dog for the match to be made. Nonetheless, from the start of 2012, Stan was on Hendri’s side. Stan was the perfect match as he also
enjoys a good swim. However, at times Stan thinks that Hendri is shorter than what he actually is. A few years back at a tournament in Durban, as Hendri was on his way to race in the finals, he suddenly found himself on his bum on the floor, as he walked straight into an electricity box. Fortunately, there were not many of these instances as Hendri sings Stan’s praises for being one of the best guide dogs ever. A man’s best friend stays a man’s best friend, through thick and thin. And who else than your best friend to be the perfect wingman. One summer’s afternoon in Stellenbosch, Hendri took Stan for a run. As Hendri waited at his car for Stan to return after running on his own, on that day Stan did not return empty handed. An infectious hello from a girl, a few heart beats, and Hendri knew that Stan just brought his wife to him. Hendri and Brigitte Glanzmann, who finished her doctorate degree last year in Human Genetics, will be saying “I do” at the end of this year. Brigitte fits in well with the medical family as Hendri’s mother is a qualified speech therapist and as mentioned before his dad is a medial doctor.
Apart from a few colourful moments with Stan, Hendri has also hit his head in the swimming pool a couple of times, “die uitdaging met blind swem is maar om te probeer reguit hou.” Although Hendri
has the straight swimming under his belt, his other challenge is not knowing where the end of the pools is. Each swimmer may design his own ‘hammer’ which is used to tap them on the head, to indicate where the edge of the pool is. Each swimmer is also allowed to indicate his/her own distance of when to receive the tap. Hendri uses a modified fishing rod with a soft ball at the end, and receives his tap with two strokes left before he needs to turn around, and one stroke left before he tough to finish. There were a few times when he did not feel the tap and face plant against the edge of the swimming pool. During World Champs 2015 in Scotland, he was tapped ahead of the two stokes left, and as he turned around he kicked, what felt like an ocean of just water, “dit was die aakligste ooit.” He then had to turn back and swim back to the edge.
Although Hendri is living a very successful life, it is not without challenges, and at times challenges beyond his control. Hendri wanted to do his honours in Socio- informatics, but was told that the course was too visual for him to continue, although he cum-lauded that part of his degree. He consequently started to study a new degree, and should finish his LLB postgraduate next year. One other challenge is not being allowed to bring Stan into certain restaurants, “dis soos om vir iemand in n rolstoel te sê: los jou rolstoel buite.”
Notwithstanding, Hendri keeps his mind occupied with the positive side of life. It reminded me of a scripture in Philippians 4:8 “Whatever things are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue, and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.”
I was encouraged by Hendri’s positive outlook on life, and all the things he has already achieved. He will be participating in three events at the Rio Paralympics. He is ranked second for the 50m freestyle (PB 26.89), and fourth for the 100m freestyle (PB 59.60), and in his words, the 100m backstroke is just for fun. As a nation we are holding thumbs that Hendri would medal in all these races. But should he not receive a medal, we are already super proud of him, medal or not!
Hendri is indeed an inspiration to not only those who are blind, but all of us who are faced with loss and disappointment. He kept on moving straight ahead, in the pool and in all other aspects of his life.