South African Paralympic athlete Tyrone Pillay recently competed in the 2020 Paralympics held in Tokyo. We asked him about the experience and his incredible journey to get there.
From being bullied by kids (and even teachers) at school, to raising his country’s flag as a member of the South African Paralympic squad for the second time, congenital amputee Tyrone is proof that anything is possible – if you are willing to work hard enough for it.
Originally from Durban, the 41-year-old shot put champion says, despite being born disabled, his dream was always to represent his country as a sportsman. “I am living proof that dreams do come true. I was three years old when I dreamt of one day competing for my country. Thirty-three years later I climbed onto the podium with a medal round my neck.”
Tyrone walked away with a bronze medal in the 2016 Rio Paralympics, breaking both the South African and African shot put records in the same year. He has competed in four world championships and was named KZN Sportsman of the year with a disability and KZN Sports Personality of the year in 2014.
Athletics wasn’t originally where Tyrone’s passion lay. “Cricket was that for me,” he says, “but despite playing competitively for years, I could sadly never live out my dream of playing for South Africa as my disability was always going to be a hurdle that I wasn’t ready to face.”
It was when he was watching the Beijing Paralympics on television in 2008 that he realised his future lay elsewhere. “I saw amazing people competing with no arms, no legs, in wheelchairs and some that were blind. I realised this was for me and I started my Paralympic dream the following year. I decided I needed to go where I would be respected for who I was.”
Growing up with a disability was easy, Tyrone says, until he started going to school. “Kids were mean to me and used to call me names. It was a challenging time and I didn’t know how to cope. I even had a primary school teacher who used to bully me. It’s not something I’ve ever really spoken about, but I think it made me who I am today. It wasn’t easy, but with the support of my family I was able to overcome it.”
Speaking about his recent experience at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, Tyrone says it was a complicated and challenging journey to get there. “There were many issues around Covid, like not being able to compete overseas and often not having access to training facilities, but it was more than that. As athletes, we are routine-based and focused and Covid took us out of our comfort zones. I needed to qualify for the games and there were very few competitions for me to achieve this. It was very stressful. I only qualified in July 2021.”
The Tokyo Paralympic Games were completely different to what Tyrone had previously experience in Rio. “Us older athletes in particular struggled with the fact that there were no crowds to engage with and to cheer us on. The younger guys seemed to manage better, as they didn’t really have anything to measure it against.”
On the day of his event Tyrone faced another tough obstacle: the weather. “The conditions were tougher than I could ever have imagined. The rain made it extremely difficult, especially with competing on a prosthetic leg. I knew I was in good shape and throwing well, but I finished in eighth place and was quite disappointed. You prepare for five years for this one moment, only for it to be taken away by factors out of your control. It’s sometimes difficult to come to terms with.”
Despite the challenges, Tyrone is proud of his achievements, which he says he would never have had were it not for the hard work he’s put in over the years. “Hard work and dedication pay off. Most people with talent don’t work hard to achieve their goals and this is why I love the saying, ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’”
Helping others, particularly children, overcome their limitations and seeing them get the opportunities he did as a child by way of having a prosthetic limb, is another passion of Tyrone’s. He has worked with and is an ambassador for the Jumping Kids non-profit organisation, which provides lower limb prosthetic solutions to children living with amputation from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. “Whether able or disabled, we are all equal. Learning and accepting myself taught me to be confident in who I am and I hope to teach others this same self-belief.”
Details: @tyrone_onebigcalf, www.tyronepillay.com
Text: Leah Shone