As seen on The BrightRock Change Exchange
His life changed forever when he was caught in a scrum that went wrong. But for Gerhard van der Wath, a beneficiary of the Chris Burger/Petro Jackson Players’ Fund, the real lesson is that you never know how tough you are until life throws that bouncing ball your way.
The concept of ‘playing the bounce’ is familiar to rugby players and fans alike. It’s about being aware that the ball doesn’t always bounce in the direction that you think it will. And because of this, you need to think fast, be adaptable and prepare for the unexpected.
This is as true off the field as it is on – something that 21-year-old Gerhard van der Wath can confirm. After a rugby accident just over five years ago left him paralysed from the waist down, Gerhard says that that he may be living a different life now, but it’s one he wants to live to the fullest.
And while change can sometimes be our toughest opponent, the Chris Burger/Petro Jackson Players’ Fund has endeavoured to assist Gerhard, and many others such as himself – a teammate through life’s losses and victories.
Please tell us a little about yourself, Gerhard.
I’m turning 22. I live in the small West Coast town of Clanwilliam, where I’ve lived since I was five years old. Needless to say, I’ve known the people here for a very long time and it’s a very supportive community.
And obviously being part of a close-knit community is probably something more meaningful to you than most. Could you tell us about your accident?
It happened in 2011 – I was 16 at the time – when I was playing rugby for my school’s first team. Very early on in the game there was a scrum where we didn’t line up correctly and I couldn’t get my head in the right position.
It all happened so quickly. We engaged and my head was wedged against another guy’s shoulder. With pressure from in front and behind me, two of my vertebra dislocated, resulting in spinal cord damage. The unusual thing about my accident is that I was conscious all the time.
How has life changed for you?
My level of injury is so high that my stomach muscles don’t work, so after the accident it felt like I couldn’t breathe – that was a terrifying experience. My diaphragm has grown stronger since, but even now I can’t cough.
People forget the spinal cord injuries don’t just affect your limbs. For example, I don’t sweat, so when it’s hot you have no way of cooling down, so you get extremely lightheaded. And when it gets cold your body isn’t very good at regulating its core temperature.
You think our biggest problem is not being able to walk but ask anyone in a wheelchair and they’ll tell you that that’s pretty far down on their list of problems. You can get very far not being able to walk. Other things are less easy to negotiate.
How has the Chris Burger/Petro Jackson Players’ Fund assisted you?
My coach actually filled in the forms. That’s the first thing I remember about them. The Players’ Fund is about exceptional people creating an exceptional thing: when this terrifying blow hits you, you’re looked after. When you’re in my position, everything you need to make life even one percent easier costs a lot of money.
If it wasn’t for the financial support from the Players’ Fund so much wouldn’t be possible. The difference they made might seem small for them, but it makes such a big difference to me and the other people who have received assistance.
What other acts of support stand out for you?
I missed an entire term of school, but I have amazing friends. When I went back, even though I couldn’t pack my own books or write notes quickly enough, they did it for me. They walked me home and walked with me to school.
What do the words ‘play the bounce’ mean to you?
Life never goes as planned. But I do think very differently about life, and I experience it differently. After in injury like this you’re so static, everyone else is moving and you just stay in one spot and observe. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about life and reading people and, in a big sense, about what’s important.
We all know what it should be, but we don’t always subscribe to that unless we’re forced to. There’s so much we take for granted. We think things are terrible, but there’s always someone in a worse situation, even to me.
I try to impart what I’ve learned but I also realise that you need to learn on your own, through experience. People only understand what playing the bounce really means in that moment.
How have you coped emotionally?
Honestly, distractions. When I was in hospital everyone came to see me and there wasn’t a lot of time to do nothing and dwell on things. When I had too much time to think I struggled.
Even though I had to come to terms with things eventually, I needed that at the beginning. Day-to-day life at home was a huge adjustment. Suddenly what’s meant to be familiar is so different and you have to learn new ways to do things that used to be effortless. That was one of the toughest parts.
Your life changes 100 per cent. Nothing is the same! You just need to work through things slowly.
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt about change?
I believe the only way you can go through a massive change without difficulty is if you didn’t like how things were before. I loved my life before, so of course it was hard. You will miss the way things were, so you can’t force the change to happen quickly.
You’re studying computer science and mathematics through UNISA. What are your plans?
I’d like to go into robotics. Even though I won’t be able to build them, I would like to code them. I’m really passionate about that. If I could do that for a living it wouldn’t feel like working to me. I’d like to create simple devices that make life easier.
You’ve reached this point facing much bigger challenges than most. For young people at a crossroads in their lives or facing difficult situations, do you have any words of advice?
Being in a wheelchair I have a good sense of problem-solving because I get into difficult situations every day. What I’ve realised is that even though I can’t do everything, with enough patience I can do almost everything. That drives me.
I also remind myself that it could have been worse. I could’ve been in a much worse situation. You need to appreciate the things you have. Even if you have one finger moving, you have that one finger. There are people who don’t even have that. You can do a lot with one finger if you’re innovative.
The best advice anyone has ever given me? He told me in Afrikaans, ‘Byt vas, ou maat.’ It’s very simple but it helps. Hold on and push through. The difference between me and you is I know how tough I am. Most people have no idea how strong they really are.
With intense rehab and dedication, Gerhard is learning to walk again using calipers and a walking frame. You can watch the video below.