Interview With Precedent-Setting Triathlete Pieter Du Preez

Pieter and Illse Du Preeze triathlonPieter Du Preez (Supa Piet) recently became the world’s first quadriplegic athlete to complete a Ironman 70.3 event. We interviewed Piet and his wife Illse back in 2010 where he mentioned his goal of completing a half Ironman one day.

Wheels of Life was orginally published in the July/August 2010 issue
He went over the bonnet of a car, landed in ICU for over 40 days, was on a ventilator for 32 and lost his sight for three weeks. He’s not complaining. He got the girl.

In 2003, Pieter du Preez was an honours student at RAU (now UJ) and a triathlete. On 6 October, he was on a morning training ride south of Johannesburg when a driver swerved in front of Pieter. He was thrown over the bonnet of the car and landed on his neck. Life threw a bag of lemons at Pieter that day.

His life changed forever. “I am a C6 quadriplegic meaning that I have good shoulder strength and full bicep and wrist extension. I don’t have any functional tricep movement and can’t move my fingers at all,” says 30-year-old Pieter.

“External factors like extreme heat or rain have a far greater effect on his performance than for an able-bodied athlete. He does not sweat, so he over heats very easily,” says wife Ilse.

He doesn’t sweat so he overheats easily

Comeback Kid
He knew he had to get on with his life though. “After my accident I first had to work on becoming independent, finishing my honours degree and getting back to work. All of this I handled as a race anyway, timing everything.” Racing and sport has always been a part of Pieter’s life and is a big part of who he is. For him it was not a matter of if he would get back racing, but when.

“I was asked after the accident whether my dreams were now shattered. The simple answer was ‘not at all, they are exactly the same just in a different format’.”

Before his accident, Pieter was aiming to be a top Ironman athlete one day, striving to dip under the nine-hour mark. Now his ultimate dream and challenge is to complete an Ironman as a C6 quadriplegic. If he succeeds, he will be the first to do so. “It would be a huge achievement for me,” says Pieter.

Before his accident, Pieter did many sprint and Olympic-distance races. His first sprint race since his accident was in December last year followed by an Olympic-distance in February and another sprint in April. “I would just like to thank Werner Smit at Troisport and Neil Plumley for making these races possible for me again. I don’t think anyone realises how cool it is for me to call myself a triathlete again.”

Pieter says there are several sporting highlights for him so far, such as making the national and student triathlon teams before his accident and also being selected for the SA Paracycling team to compete in the UCI World Cup in Spain. “Despite all of this though, my proudest moment is finishing my first Olympic-distance triathlon as a quad in February.”

Make a plan
Training doesn’t come easy for Pieter. Before his accident he trained with a lot of seasoned campaigners in the triathlon world.

“It is a trial and error process in terms of technique and learning how my body works. There are not many of us in the world who actually participate in triathlon.”

As he progresses, his body is adjusting to more and more training. Currently his hardest weeks consist of three 6km swimming sessions, three to four 120km bike sessions and 60km pushing sessions and two visits to the biokineticist.

Pieter has two pieces of equipment that help him with the land legs of triathlon. For the running leg he uses a Quickie/Sopur racing wheelchair with three wheels. This wheelchair has no gears and is propelled with pushrims. Interestingly as a quad their pushrims are much smaller than those for paraplegics, as they push with a completely different technique with the power mostly coming from biceps. According to Pieter the racing chair is far more uncomfortable and squashed than in the handbike, which is his other piece of specialised equipment.

“I don’t think anyone realises how cool it is for me to call myself a triathlete again.”

“For the cycle leg I race in a Carbonbike handbike which also has three wheels but the position is much more comfortable as you recline in it. You have gears as on a normal bicycle and you propel the bike with hand pedals using your arms simultaneously. I have special attachments on the hand pedals as I cannot grip with my fingers and I change gears and brake with my elbows.” His latest handbike weighs around 13kg, a great improvement over his old bike which weighed a hefty 19kg.

When it comes to his career as an Actuarial Analyst, time management is important. “I worked really hard up to the end of last year and was continuously bugged with bladder infections (one of the irritations for people in wheelchairs) and other sicknesses. Since the start of this year, my employee, Deloitte, let me work only five hours a day and we juggle the times I have to go away for racing. Since this change, my health has improved exponentially.” Pieter has found a balance between work and training that most able-bodied people wish they could achieve.

The Future
Finance depending, the Berlin Marathon is next up on the cards for Pieter at the end of September. He is also thinking of doing the 94.7 and a few BSG Energade Series triathlons if race organisers and the course allow it.

“The big plan though is to go for a half Ironman early next year, but even though I should make the overall cut-off, I might not make the bike cut-off. I will again have to discuss with the organisers.”

Pieter has come a long way since his accident and already achieved a great deal, but one feels that he won’t rest until he crosses that finish line at Ironman one day. No matter what happens though, consider that lemonade well and truly squeezed.

Mrs Du Preez
As Pieter always says, we met by accident. I was friends with his older brother (who at that stage was working in Australia). He let me know about the accident as he thought I would be a good person to support his parents. I am an occupational therapist and was working mainly in rehab with spinal cord injured patients at that stage.

The first time I met Pieter, he was on a ventilator in ICU and in an induced coma. I supported him during his time in hospital and rehab and we became really good friends. Two years later we realised that we actually liked each other and we got married in May 2008.
I am with him for every training session and being at races with him is so rewarding. It took a lot of hard work to get where he is now, so it is really special to be a part of it.

Each race is unique with different goals and obstacles. Pieter always has definitive goals for each race. As exciting as it is when he reaches his goal, as disappointing when he does not (for both of us). Extreme heat has a far greater effect on his performance than for an able-bodied athlete. He does not sweat, so he overheats very easily. It’s frustrating but just another challenge.

I do sometimes think how different it could have been. He was such a good athlete before his accident and was just getting better. To now go and compete at the same races against the same athletes you competed against before, but in such a different way, takes guts! I am so proud of him and it is wonderful to be on this journey with him.

What a privilege to be part of his life.

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