Kat Swanepoel, a star that emerged from the Vodacom Wheelchair Basketball Challenge
For Kat Swanepoel, it began with the slightest tingling of pins and needles in her legs. Just over two years later, she was in a wheelchair after being diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis and searching for the one thing she now believes is what carried her from the lowest point in her life to becoming a Paralympic athlete.
“I always say you’ve just got to hang onto hope and have a purpose. If you’ve got something to work towards, you will get through it.”
Swanepoel has had to pick herself up from the floor – literally and figuratively – so many times that it’s impossible to comprehend how she does it. And, quite aptly, her major setbacks are reflected in her biggest triumphs.
When she started using a wheelchair, Swanepoel went on to represent her country in wheelchair basketball and as one of the stars to emerge from the Vodacom Wheelchair Basketball Challenge and various other local and international competitions supported by Vodacom. She played wheelchair rugby at the same time and also represented South Africa here.
A neck injury ended her rugby dreams. And then she suffered a massive stroke – including 23 seizures – shortly before taking to the court for South Africa in an African Championship qualifier in Algeria for the Rio Paralympics. “I had decided that would be my last wheelchair basketball match because I had also started to lose the function of my hands, but I just didn’t think it would end that way,” she says.
Robbed of an opportunity to now even compete in a wheelchair, Swanepoel rose again and took her challenge to the swimming pool. Within a short space of time she qualified for the Tokyo Paralympics in the 50-metre S4 Backstroke and missed out on a bronze medal in her first major swimming competition by only half a second.
“I was in my final year of studying occupational therapy, and I started to get pins and needles in my legs. I felt this general weakness in my legs. Initially I thought it may be a back injury because I was very active. But after further investigation we saw that my spinal cord was being damaged, and this led to a diagnosis of progressive multiple sclerosis. How did I handle that news? Well, initially not well at all.
“I came out of the appointment, and I was in shock. I struggled with it and there was a lot of denial. I was still able to walk, so there was a part of me saying the doctors were overreacting. But when I had to start using a wheelchair fulltime at the end of 2010, that was a low point for me. That’s when reality kicked in. I was always a shy person, so I really battled with going out and everyone looking at me. I became a hermit. One of my friends gave me a good pep talk and said if I stayed at home all the time, people were simply going to stop coming to visit, and that I can take this for what it is and go and live my life. That was a turning point for me.”
The next major turning point for Swanepoel was finding her way to wheelchair basketball, and specifically the Vodacom Mandeville Indoor Stadium, a world-class facility for athletes with a disability and which underpins Vodacom’s longstanding support of disabled sport.
“I got involved with a local wheelchair basketball club and suddenly you realise you’re a part of a community of people with the same challenges. The friendship and support I received was a turning point for me in the acceptance of my disability. I was now involved with a group of very active, driven individuals. I loved the team environment.”
Swanepoel became a star in a sport where she often competed against the men, and more than held her own.
But when her condition deteriorated to the extent that she could no longer play either wheelchair basketball or rugby, she had to find a new way to express herself through sport.
“I had a housemate who was the physio for the South African Paralympic swimmers. While she was at the World Championships with them, she phoned me and said, ‘Listen, I’ve seen you swim. You need to do this’. Initially I wasn’t keen, so just to shut her up I started training.”
Swanepoel started swimming seriously in November 2019. When you consider that she missed most of 2020 because of the COVID-19 lockdown and only returned to the pool in September 2020, and then by August 2021 was in a pool in Tokyo swimming in the Paralympics, you understand better the driven nature of one of South Africa’s most talented sportswomen.
She’s also focused on being an inspiration to other disabled athletes out there, including her role as the official ambassador for this year’s Vodacom Wheelchair Basketball Challenge – an event she feels particularly passionate about.
“I’m very excited to be returning to the tournament that gave me so much, this time not as a player, but as an ambassador. I look forward to sitting courtside and cheering some of my former teammates on.
“With funding drying up and people with disabilities often overlooked, Vodacom continue to show their support, and give equal opportunity to the men and women in the Vodacom Wheelchair Basketball Challenge.”