In March, athletes with disabilities gathered in Stellenbosch for the South Africa Sport Association for People with Disabilities (SASAPD) National Championships, sponsored by Toyota.
SASAPD is a federation that promotes sport for athletes with disabilities and visual impairments from grass-roots to Paralympic level. It currently caters for 12 regions throughout the country and for five disability groups, including spinal cord injuries, amputees, cerebral palsied, visually impaired and blind, and les autres (a category for Paralympic competitors whose disability does not fit into the other five categories).
This epic five-day event is arguably one of the most important sporting events for athletes with disabilities in South Africa as it offers them the opportunity to showcase their talent at an internationally recognised event.
“The National Championships are probably the most important for any athlete with a disability who participates in the eight sporting codes we offer. It is the last opportunity for these athletes to showcase their athletic ability. It offers them the opportunity to break South African or international records, which are then recognised,” Moekie Grobbelaar, SASAPD president, says.
All the sporting events at the Toyota SASAPD National Championships are in line with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) regulations, so that new records are recognised by the IPC. With support from Toyota South Africa Motors, Grobbelaar noted, it is a lot easier to host the event.
“People always ask me what the SASAPD reinvests into the athlete. Unfortunately we don’t have the opportunity to send every athlete overseas, but we can offer them the opportunity to participate at the National Championships, showcase their talents and be recognised. They don’t have the same platform on club or provincial level, as the club sports aren’t standardised,” she says.
“If the event is not sanctioned by the International Paralympic committee (IPC), the athlete can’t be ranked internationally. Today, sport is all about international ranking. It is how you are measured. This year’s National Championships are particularly important and so is the backing from Toyota South Africa Motors, as we need to select the team for the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships.”
SASAPD advises the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) on the team that should be at the World Championship and Paralympic Games. However, SASCOC makes the final decision. The Toyota SASAPD National Championships offer athletes the opportunity to qualify for the World Para Athletics Championships, which will be held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from November 7 to 15 later this year.
As adaptive sports become more competitive, it is more difficult for athletes with disabilities to be selected to represent their country at these events. Grobbelaar explained that if a county can get 30 athletes to the World Championships, it would be fortunate to receive 12 slots for the Paralympic Games.
“We need to send as many athletes as we can so that we can get more slots at the Paralympic Games. Toyota’s sponsorship of the National Championship is key in achieving this goal,” she adds.
While Grobbelaar is excited and grateful to have high-performance athletes like Ntando Mahlangu, who won silver at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, at the National Championships, she is equally excited about the upcoming athletes.
“The core function for the SASAPD is to develop the sport codes and build athletes from grass roots. That is why we have schools and clubs. I’m interested in the newcomers or wild-card athletes, as it shows me whether there is development in the sport,” she explains.
People with disabilities are monitored by SASCOC as soon as they become high-performance athletes. SASAPD thus takes more interest in the talent that still needs to be developed.
SASAPD’s work in developing sport has already reaped results, with junior athletes making up the majority of the 795 athletes at the Championships. With Toyota’s support, the number of participating athletes will surely only grow.
While there are high stakes for the Paralympians competing at the Nationals, for many other athletes it provides and opportunity to measure their performance against the best in South Africa or their personal best. Jonathan Swanepoel is one of those athletes – soft-spoken and a little shy, he has a smile that lights up the Coetzenburg athletics track.
A T54 wheelchair competitor representing Western Province, Swanepoel completed the 100 m in a respectable time, powering to the line one second behind the leading pair (just over 18 seconds). It was satisfying progress for Swanepoel, 21, who has been racing competitively for the past three years and is determined to improve every year.
To make this progress happen, he trains up to five days a week – on the track in summer and in the gym in winter. At the end of 2018 he graduated from the Cape University of Technology with a qualification in office administration and is currently working as an intern while looking for full-time employment. Will there always be time for sport in his life? You bet.
For others, it was their first time competing at the National Championships. This was the case for 14-year-old Mpumi Ngozo, who was delighted to have completed the T36 100-m girls’ race. One of her teachers, spotting the youngster’s sporting potential, encouraged her to take up running a couple of years ago – which she’s done with enthusiasm and dedication. “Third place this year,” Ngozo says with a smile, “but next year, it’ll be first!”
The 2019 National Championships, lauded the best ever at Coetzenburg stadium, were organised by the Local Organising Committee, which consist of only six members! An astonishing amount of work is done before, during and after the four-day event by chairperson Mark Beack and his team.
Praise was received from the various provinces and the SASAPD team. “This year’s event was really incredible,” Johan Grobbelaar from the SASAPD noted. “All the sporting events were only a few minutes away from each other and located on the same campus, which makes it so much better.”
His sentiments are echoed by Jan Wahl, chairperson of the Free State Sports Association for the Physically Disabled (FSSAPD). “The event was very well organised and offers a great platform for some incredible athletes,” he said. “Stellenbosch is also a very central place to host the event and it is wonderful to have the athletes go see the other sports on offer.”
Toyota has entered into a three-year partnership with the SASAPD to promote the sporting codes offered at Paralympic level for athletes with disabilities.
“At Toyota, we believe that movement and mobility in all its definitions is all around us. Sport has the power to connect people. This where we learn the true power of sport – it can challenge us, inspire us and, most importantly, unify us,” says Glenn Crompton, Vice President: Marketing at Toyota South Africa Motors.
“As the Worldwide Official Mobility Partner of the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee, Toyota shares the vision to inspire people to push onward – past their finish line, past their impossible. We have seen so many examples of people achieving the impossible at the SASAPD National Championships.
“Toyota believes that you can achieve great things when you move. This is why we are a proud partner of the SASAPD National Championships. We are wholeheartedly committed to unleashing human potential through the power of movement,” he explains.
Good luck to the athletes who have qualified for the World Para Athletics Championships! For the rest of us, we can look forward to the 2020 Toyota SASAPD National Championships, which will surely be even more spectacular.