Playing wheelchair rugby has helped Tuks player Victor Buitendag find a new level of love, respect and purpose for his life.
In 1993, Buitendag’s life changed dramatically just in a few seconds, after he was involved in car accident that broke his neck leaving him paralysed at the tender age of 23, while driving home from completing a military camp.
Buitendag admits to being down and out after the crash.
‘I was starting to wither away, nothing mattered to me and I didn’t know what to do with myself. However, everything changed when a friend suggested that I should take up wheelchair rugby.
‘Right after my first training session, I realised that the sport is going to change my life for the better. Suddenly I had a purpose. I wanted to be the best wheelchair rugby player in the world,’ Buitendag said.
The Tuks player said the biggest challenge facing any person after being paralysed is to realise that the person sitting in the wheelchair is not the person you truly are.
‘I will admit that seeing your image in a wheelchair for the first time is quite a shock. You battle to identify with the person in the chair. But you have to realise that the wheelchair is just a means to get from one place to another.
‘It can never define who you are. What defines you is how you cope with everyday challenges. You have to learn how to respect yourself. Only when you are able to so, will you start to earn the respect of others. Playing wheelchair rugby changed my life,’ said Buitendag.
One of the sport’s stalwarts played his first game for South Africa in 1998 and his last in 2015, but has lost count on how many international games he played and says it could be anything between 60 and 80 games. A definite highlight for Buitendag was playing against New Zealand and experiencing the haka first hand.
There is no stopping the 50-year-old, who still trains with the Tuks wheelchair team at least twice a week. What he might lack in physical abilities, he makes up for with tactical savviness.
During training, he regularly ‘sidesteps’ the younger players to go on to score tries. Getting to execute the ultimate tackle that is to hit the opponent with such force that they are flung from their wheelchair is one of the reasons why Buitendag fell in love with the sport.
‘The physical contact of wheelchair rugby is of cardinal importance to us. It is a way to vent our frustration. One of our coaches remarked how he could see changes in every player before and after a training session. To him, it seemed as if we were more content afterwards,’ Buitendag said.
When asked about his longevity as a player Buitendag said he lives by a simple motto: ‘Don’t train to be only the best in South Africa but in the world. If you do so, it means you have to be self-disciplined at all times. Doing the right exercises and eating the right food,’ Buitendag concluded.
Photo: Victor Buitendag playing with his Tuks wheelchair team members, by Reg Caldecott.