Hein Wagner, holder of the world blind land speed record, is off to the Korean Iron Man Competition - reputedly one of the toughest in the world. Health24 caught up with him as he was packing his suitcase.
It's been a long journey to get here - and, for Hein, not always an easy one.
"Growing up blind was not easy, and neither was going to boarding school at the age of four-and-half. I knew I was a bit different from a young age, and although I sometimes felt despondent, I became determined to lead an interesting life and to help others," said Hein.
Together with two other disabled athletes, blind Kenyan runner and Sydney Olympic Gold medallist, Henry Wanyoike, and Kawai Junich, Hein will form part of a relay team who will tackle the race.
The team has received special dispensation to race as a relay team.
What does 34-year-old Hein see as the biggest challenges in this race?
“In Korea, the temperature and the humidity can cause difficulty, but that’s what the Iron Man competitions are all about – not to make things easy for the competitors. The cycle route, which I will be doing, is 180km long. That’s like doing the Argus twice. The route is also very high above sea level, and this brings about challenges of its own.”
Hein’s sporting achievements are spectacular. They include being part of the winning Blind Cricket World Cup team and holding the world blind land speed record at 243km/h. (The game gets played with four blind players, and seven partially sighted ones in a team. The cricket balls have ball bearings inside, so the players can hear the ball.)
Racing for charity
But apart from the thrill of competing, Hein is also raising funds for Standard Chartered Bank’s worldwide Seeing is Believing programme. This programme aims to restore the sight of one million people worldwide by means of cataract operations.
This operation, which could restore the sight of 80% of people who have gone blind, takes a mere twenty minutes.
“But,” says Hein, “many people in the world just do not have the access to medical care which could restore their sight. That’s why this fundraising is so important.”
Motivating and inspiring others
Hein, who has been blind from birth, is not only a sportsman. He also works as a motivational speaker for large South African companies. He says humour and positive thinking are an important part of what he has to say. But that doesn’t mean that he never feels down.
“My life has not always been easy, and I know what it’s like to feel despondent. I was four-and-a-half years old when my parents took me to the school for the blind in Worcester. I was terrified and clung desperately to my mother’s skirt. But in the end the time I spent there was very rewarding.”
When asked how he deals with it when other people appear awkward about his blindness, his answer is simple: “It’s not my problem. Yes, I am slightly different, but when people cannot deal with this, it is largely because of their own insecurities. I cannot take responsibility for this. But, by and large, people have been absolutely fantastic.”
“Being blind certainly has its downsides,” says Hein. “Little things grate, such as being late for something and the driver hasn’t arrived, and not being able to drive oneself. Or having to do much of one’s training indoors on treadmills and stationary cycles, because unless there is a training partner at hand, one can’t take to the road.”
Reaching for the skies
But Hein is no moaner and his enthusiastic stance on sport and life in general is almost contagious. In short, he is excited about life, the places he’s been to, the events in which he’s taken part – and the ones still to come. This includes the competition in Korea and the New York marathon later in the year.
O yes, and he plans to be the first blind person to fly (with a co-pilot) a Boeing 747 from London to New York for charity. Given his track record, if anyone manages to pull this one off, it will be Hein.
(Susan Erasmus, Health24, August 2006)
Visit Health24's Fitness Section
South African Optometric Association
Tel: 011 805 4517
South African National Council for the Blind (Their website is highly informative and helpful)
Tel: 012 452 3811
Retina South Africa
Tel: 011 622 4904
Ophthalmological Society of South Africa