Van der Merwe ended his twelve-year career as a professional athlete by winning bronze in the Rio 2016 Paralympics, in the 100m T37. He gave his all and clocked a time of 11:54, the same as the silver medalist. He unfortunately had to settle for the bronze medal as his component went for the head dip before him. Van der Merwe was the defending champion, having won gold in both Beijing 2008, and London 2012. The 30 year old handed the baton over to his 23 year old teammate Charl du Toit who won gold and set a new world record.
A few weeks before the start of the Rio Paralympics, I had the honour of having a coffee with Stephanus Benjamin van der Merwe, publicly known as Fanie van der Merwe. That coffee proved to be one of great significance in my life.
It was a cold and rainy day in Stellenbosch. A few days earlier my phone was stolen before my eyes, I was struggling to find inspiration to finish my thesis, and I still had to pay my study fees, with no real income or prospective income. Also, I have been battling with my health. Well, I was not in a good space, and I did not really feel like having this interview.
However, when Fanie entered the room with his bright orange shirt and a big smile, the change in the atmosphere was tangible. Fanie was filled with joy and it somehow was contagious leading to me laughing throughout the interview.
I must confess, I missed most of what Fanie said on that day. I was too intrigued by who he was and the freedom and joy that he expressed, as well as being slightly distracted by the fact that he was so handsome. I am not sure if Fanie picked up that I was not in a good space but he used the time to share some of his less glorious moments, maybe because he knew those were actually his victory moments. I appreciated him being so honest and not trying to impress me with all his achievements.
Wholehearted people (according to Brené Brown), are those who believe that they are worthy of love and affection. Fanie’s parents never treated him as someone who was disabled. He attended an able body school and was treated the same as his brothers and sister. Van der Merwe knew that he was a bit different than the other kids, but not once during his childhood years did it dawn on him that he might be disabled.
“I remember this one day specifically, all the kids were playing outside, I really wanted to play with them, but I knew that I run a bit funny, and I was not in the mood to have all the kids laugh at me, so I ended up not playing with them.”
For most of the time, Fanie did not really care much about who was laughing. Growing up in the van der Merwe house, he knew that he was loved. Their love was all that was necessary to protect a vulnerable boy and cause him
to be courageous. Van der Merwe loved sport and from a young age he was climbing trees and running around. His parents were never overprotective, “if you fall, then you fall”. All the early exposure to sport significantly helped him to manage a disability that he personally was unaware of.
When I first met Fanie, his thick black hair with the silver stripes
caught my eye from across the room. My friend then whispered “that’s Fanie van der Merwe”, “the Paralympian?” I responded. I only knew him by reputation. I then awkwardly kept on staring at him. Eventually, I turned to my friend asking her if she knew what his disability was. She did not know, but we somehow concluded that he must be an amputee. During our coffee (second time I saw him after almost a year) I was still sort of staring at him, trying to figure out what his disability was.
Fanie shared that in grade eleven his teacher told him to try out for the disability track team. He remembers looking at his teacher with confused eyes, “Juffrou, is ek dan disabled?” That was the very first time that Fanie was confronted with his disability. I smiled, as I thought, “I am glad I was not the only one confused about your disability”.
Van der Merwe has cerebral palsy. It is caused by a brain injury in the womb or during birth. It is fortunately not a progressive disorder, so it won’t become worse over time. In short, there is no real muscle on his right side, which also causes a great loss in strength and difficulty in controlling movement. At age 16 when most boys are only concerned about trying to impress girls, Fanie now suddenly had to deal with the knowledge of being disabled.
Nonetheless, the young boy finally was given a fair chance to prove himself on the sports field, something his heart had been longing for. Yet, it should be noted that despite his disability, and being at an able body school, van der Merwe was a great athlete and participated in rugby and cricket for his primary school’s first teams. Things, however, changed during high school.
“I always played for the school’s third or fourth team [during high school] in rugby and cricket, and I desperately wanted to play at least for the second team. I remember the coach once told me that I should warm-up for the second team. I thought, this was my big break, but he never called me onto the field. I was only warming up! The disappointment crept deep into my heart.”
In 2004 Fanie was shortlisted for the Paralympics team but did not make the final team. Still, this was the advent of a Paralympic gold medal dream. Before, he was only dreaming of playing rugby for his high school’s second team, with no real shot of achieving his dream, mostly due to his disability. Now, he started to dream of running for his country on the biggest sporting stage.
Four years later, van der Merwe was chosen to represent South Africa at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics and brought back two gold medals. He worked hard and was now a professional athlete, something he always desired to be as a little boy. Fanie was living his dream, and setting world records, left, right and centre. Things were going well for the athlete.
The next four years passed with great achievements behind his belt, now in London 2012, Paralympics 200m T37 “… world record holder, ranked first, defending champion, I’ve got this … 50m left in the race, one person passes, and another, and yet another… I ended in sixth place.”
This race marked an unforgettable moment in Fanie’s life. He recalls walking from the track straight to the call room. We, who are watching on the television and who haven’t been preparing for this event for four years, will never be able to understand the extreme emotions of disappointment, failure and even embarrassment that is elicited through such a moment. Nonetheless, Fanie learned one of the biggest lessons of his life.
“I thought that through performance, I will gain acceptance…The next day I was worshiping God in my room. I had nothing to bring Him, no gold medal, and I felt empty…all I had was my worship… I then realised that my worship was enough, I was enough.”
Fanie came to know truth through athletics in an unapologetic way. His identity was once again cemented in God. What you do and who you are, are often not interchangeable. With truth in his heart about who he is in Christ, he went on to win the 100m sprint. Strangely, in that moment of going for gold, he found himself once again face down on the ground. This time, because he dived over the finish line to secure his gold medal.
Van der Merwe was, however, yet again confronted with whether or not this truth was truly cemented in his heart when he did not win Nationals in 2015. “One so easily can become performance driven, but I just had to get back to basics, whether I win or lose. When I run, it is for the glory of God, and because I love running.”
Fanie’s disability is not noticeable at first glance. The signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy differ from one individual to another. The primary effect is impairment of muscle tone, which is visible in Fanie’s right leg. He also struggles with gross and fine motor functions such as being able to pick-up things. Balance and motor control are also at times a struggle. Sometimes Fanie’s right-hand plays funny tricks, especially when he skateboards. Notably, van der Merwe does not display the typical cerebral palsy posture. He learned how to keep his arm straight and he had an operation where his Achilles was extended which now helps him to put his foot down.
After I was finished with the interview, I had to rush to another appointment and Fanie offered to walk me to the door. As we walked out of the coffee shop, I saw that he walked a bit funny. I gave a nervous giggle, thinking, well that funny walk is kind of cute. My sneaky thought did, however, teach me a great lesson.
I remember sometime last year, I was walking and thinking, I wish I had a different nose, one of those pointy sharp ones. In primary school, the kids used to tease me saying that I have a “koesiester nies.” Loosely translated it highlights the fact that my nose is round and fat and flat. As I was walking, with these thoughts in my head, a stranger stopped me, “Sorry mam’ I know this might sound strange but as you were walking past me I could not help to notice your nose. You have a really pretty nose. I just though I will let you know.” I wanted to drop down right there and repent. Dankie Fanie for reminding me that the funny parts of our body, the parts that are different than usual, those are the parts that make us special. I was once again challenged to believe the scripture and be able to say, ‘I know that full well.’
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful. I know that full well.” – Psalm 139:14
Fanie has two older brothers, the younger of the two, Chris is a professional inline rollerbladder. Fanie spoke about him with utmost fondness. “There is nothing that my brother cannot do.” The two of them started an NGO called Inspired2Become, with the aim to use their talents and gifts to assist the youth in reaching their dreams. Also, Fanie coaches kids with disabilities. He graduated from Stellenbosch University with a BA Sports Science degree, and additionally obtained a level two ASA sprinting coaching qualification.
Van der Merwe’s middle name is Benjamin, which means ‘son of my right hand’. Well, after spending that momentous hour with Fanie, and witnessing to his unique and special relationship with the Lord, it dawned on me that Fanie’s right hand might be without strength and motor control, and might at times been perceived as a burden or even a curse. But in the eyes of God,
“…God composed the body, having given greater honour to that part which lacks it.” – 1 Corinthians 12:24
“My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in your weakness” – 2 Corinthians 12:9
I also believe that all the favour, rights, and blessing bestowed on the first born son as in Jewish tradition, when the Father puts his right hand on his son to present the firstborn blessing, was also imparted to Fanie. Stephanus Benjamin van der Merwe is enough and he is loved, blessed and favoured by His Father.
His life story challenged me to investigate whether or not I believe that I was enough and if I was also still seeking acceptance and approval through performance. Also, he challenged me to be grateful for what I have. I learned that thankfulness positions one to receive from God as giving thanks is an act of worship. I consequently re-positioned myself to receive from God through being thankful for what I already had. Miraculously, a few weeks after my coffee with Fanie, I managed to submit my Ph.D. thesis, despite battling with being sick, and my tuition fees and editing cost were covered by a kind hearted person. As I publish this blog post, I am also fully healed. It all worked out in the end. God is faithful.
Van der Merwe can look back at a successful career, knowing that he gave his all on the track and made his country proud. Moreover, his journey of becoming the man that he is today has inspired and touched thousands of lives. Although his career as a professional athlete came to an end, his ministry continues as he sets out to impart what he has learned on and off the track to the next generation of Paralympic sprinters through his coaching.
Stephanus Benjamin van der Merwe, thank you for being a great servant and inspiration to your country.
Fanie ends his career heavily decorated, competing in the T37 category;
|Competition||Place and date||100m||200m||400m||4 x 100m|
|IPC World Championships||Doha 2015||silver||bronze|
|All African Games||Brazzaville 2015||gold|
|Commonwealth Games||Glasgow 2014||gold|