Gymnast with debt of gratitude flies in from US to honour SA photographer

Silvia Hutchinson (left) embraces photographer Wessel Oosthuizen. The gymnast was paralysed after a training accident and Oosthuizen, whom she'd met only once briefly before then, played a critical role getting her to South Africa where she underwent life-changing surgery.
Silvia Hutchinson (left) embraces photographer Wessel Oosthuizen. The gymnast was paralysed after a training accident and Oosthuizen, whom she'd met only once briefly before then, played a critical role getting her to South Africa where she underwent life-changing surgery.
Image: Christiaan Kotze

A top former Bulgarian gymnast travelled from her home in the US to Johannesburg just to attend the launch of the exhibition entitled “SPORT‚ my passion‚ my love‚ my life” by veteran sports photographer Wessel Oosthuizen.

Diminutive Silvia Mitova‚ a bronze medallist at the European championships‚ was just 16 when she broke her neck in a training accident in 1992‚ less than two months after competing at the Barcelona Olympics.

Oosthuizen played a critical role in 1993 helping her to travel to South Africa where she underwent surgery that allowed her to walk again.

The neurosurgeon who performed the operation‚ Dr Johan Wasserman‚ was another guest at the exhibition launch at the World of Rugby in Randburg‚ Johannesburg‚ also attended by other sports stars including legendary Springbok winger Ray Mordt.

Wasserman and his former patient‚ who is married and goes by the surname Hutchinson‚ engaged in a lengthy embrace when they met up.

“She didn’t know he was going to be here‚” said a beaming Oosthuizen‚ whose oldest daughter was a gymnast.

They had met Mitova only briefly on a gymnastics trip into Eastern Europe shortly before the 1992 Games.

“It was brief‚” Hutchinson told SowetanLIVE. “But that meeting changed my life.”

After hearing of her plight‚ Oosthuizen arranged a sponsorship to get her to South Africa where she underwent an MRI scan and then the surgery‚ with Dr Wasserman doing it for free.

“There was no email then‚ so we were communicating with faxes‚” Oosthuizen recalled. “I needed a translator.”

There were some interesting translations along the way. “When they wrote she needed MRI‚ the guy explained it ‘MRI - like atom bomb’.”

Oosthuizen also helped to raise money for Mitova’s hospital stay‚ which cost R16‚000.

Hutchinson arrived on Saturday and leaves for home to Pottstown near Philadelphia on Thursday.

That’s a long trip for a book launch‚ but she simply shrugged her shoulders and smiled: “Wessel saved my life.”

The exhibition covers Oosthuizen’s work as a sports photographer for more than 50 years‚ and includes 140 pictures‚ including some classic moments‚ such as Bok forward Frik du Preez tackling an All Black with a punch‚ and the bruised but victorious face of newly-crowned world bantamweight boxing champion Arnold Taylor.

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