‘I want my legs back’: A personal history of catastrophe by para-athlete Palesa ‘Deejay’ Manaleng

The JRB brings you an exclusive excerpt from a work in progress by Deejay Manaleng, which tells the story of how she became a top South African para-athlete.

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One, two, move the legs, one, two, place my hand, lift and swing. I miss the toilet and land on the floor, my head missing the basin by an inch. I lie there for a second, struggling to hold back the flood of tears that is trying to break through.

I was discharged from rehab a few days ago and this is the first night that I am alone in my cottage. My mother has gone back to Witbank and the nurses and physios are left behind at the Netcare rehab centre.

There is no one to lift me up, and I realise I don’t have the upper body strength to lift myself into my wheelchair or onto my bed. I drag myself around the cottage trying to find something to climb onto, I drag myself for hours on end and nothing seems to work.

I finally let the tears pour, cursing every moment of my existence as a river flows down my face. I have wet my pants, the catheters are too high for me to reach when I am not sitting in the chair. My ankles are bleeding from all the dragging and banging against unfelt objects in the house.

I cry myself to sleep. I awake to the realisation that I am still stuck on the floor. I spend three days trying to get myself onto a chair or at least the bed. I fall, I roll, I drag myself across the floor. I cry, I tire and sleep, only to wake up and cry some more. I keep telling myself I need to survive, I need to do this on my own.

On the morning of the fourth day, I don’t feel so well. It might be from a lack of food and water, but it could also be a bladder infection. I decide maybe I should ask for help, just this once. I live in a cottage located at the back of a house where three boys my age live. After some more crying and trying, I phone one of them.

Without hesitation, two of the boys jump over the fence dividing my cottage from the house and lift me into the chair. One cleans my ankles as one checks my arms for more bruises. All I can think of is whether they can smell the pee in the house.

When they are done, I wheel myself outside and stare at Dolly. With tears skating down my face again, I think back to September 10, 2014.

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I began a love affair with her in January; nothing could separate Dolly and me. Every chance I got I was all over her. At night she would lie outside my bedroom window, under the stars and in full view of the moon.

I would whisper sweet nothings to her as we rode the wind. I would promise her travels and she would guide me to my destinations with ease. We gelled to such an extent that I found myself telling her all my secrets. I teased her with the possibility of turning professional. Imagine Dolly wearing the Springbok colours for cycling, I would whisper into the wind.

On this day, we would not travel to Roodepoort or Krugersdorp, we played near home. We were to test all the little hills and to trace the outlines of the neighbourhood. Spring was in the air, flowers were smiling at us, and we rode up and down the streets of Westdene with not a care in the world.

I blinked for a split second and landed in a stranger’s arms. Where did the crowd come from, I wondered, who is this man holding my hand, I mused. He looked like the Hulk, his Barry White voice coaxing information out of me.

Only one name came to mind, and I tried to head her way but for some reason I could not move. My legs felt as if they had been ripped wide open and I could not close them. No one even dared to hand me a bottle of water. ‘Don’t try move, stay still and all will be fine,’ the Hulk said in a calm voice. But his eyes looked troubled, and I could not understand why because I planned to get up and walk as soon as the numbness passed.

I knew Dolly would be damaged beyond repair, my gut told me that. But I wasn’t worried; I needed an upgrade and I had seen some pretty awesome bikes at the Soweto Cycle Challenge. They can call their ambulance, I thought, and I will be out of hospital after a day or two and back on a bike in a few weeks.

Everyone keeps holding their mouths when they look at me, but it is really not that bad. As soon as I can sit up I will show them, the numbness is just taking forever. There is something I need to tell a friend, I just can’t remember what, but it’s funny. I just need to get up and drag Dolly home now, the sun is burning me.

One thought on “‘I want my legs back’: A personal history of catastrophe by para-athlete Palesa ‘Deejay’ Manaleng”

  1. Wow, I cried when I read your description of that first struggle. Your words and story are powerful and need to be heard. Able bodied people are not exposed to the reality of every day life as a disabled person, thanks for your honesty. Keep on writing, Champ. I will be the first in line to buy your book. Hoping to see your wheels crossing the finishing line at the next Olympics. In first place of course!!

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