Selepe cherishes historic Paralympics experience
Umpire officiated wheelchair tennis match
South African umpire Patrick Selepe has become the first person with a disability to serve as an official at a Paralympic Wheelchair Tennis Event.
It is the latest milestone in a journey that has seen him advance the sport from its very arrival in SA, having dedicated himself to wheelchair tennis as a player, coach, administrator, development officer and mentor – not bad for someone who had never so much as held a racket before losing his left leg in 1996 at the age of 19.
“You grow up being a normal child like everyone, running around and playing all the sports you love at an early age,” Selepe recalled. “Then, boom, you’re diagnosed with bone cancer – osteogenic sarcoma. That was 1996, and I was still in matric.”
Selepe’s left leg was amputated above the knee, and today he walks with a prosthetic. “I was hospitalised for quite a long time and it was difficult for me to accept, to start learning to live the way I am and finding out what can be changed to adapt into the situation, to move on with the situation and make the best out of it.”
Moving on was not easy. Selepe had no previous contact with people with disabilities and no obvious support structure once he left hospital beyond his family and friends.
“I always say, family and friends’ support is more than medicine,” he said. “I am lucky, because I got that support from the community. That made me open up to so many things.
“It was a totally new thing, knowing what can and can’t be done, and starting to learn what I could do in sport, because I love sports. I started learning that I can still play some sporting codes, and I had to start from the beginning. But believe me, it was difficult – not knowing how to approach people with disabilities, where to go in order to start sport.
“But in the end, it came to me: the journey that I’ve walked, as difficult as it was, I should try and make it easier for the next person. It might be just by giving the information that I didn’t have or motivating them in terms of what they can do and discussing what options they have.”
For now, though, Selepe is living out a long-awaited ambition at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
“It’s a dream come true – even though for me it has two meanings,” he said. “As a player, I never made it to play at this level. It has always been one thing short that I had never been a Paralympian, that I’d never been part of the Paralympics. For me, this makes a dream come true in many ways. I can say I am a Paralympian now!”