E58 - Fanie van der Merwe, The Paralympic Sprinting Champion
E58 - Fanie van der Merwe, The Paralympic Sprinting Champion

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Fanie Van De Merwe is a multiple Paralympic Champion in track sprinting, with three Gold medals to his name across a career that saw him make three Paralympic Games. Fanie grew up with cerebral palsy but competed alongside able-bodied athletes until a coach suggested he focus on disability sport when he was 17.

Fanie and his brother Chris now run a Christian non-profit called Inspired 2 Become, focusing on alternative action sports and athletes with disabilities and Fanie coaches visually and intellectually impaired children.

Danno caught up with Fanie at his home in South Africa to talk about his journey to faith alongside his long career at the top of Paralympic sprinting.

Cover image courtesy of Herman Verwey

01:07 How do your sport and faith connect?
02:57 Discovering disability sport
05:13 Athens 2004 and the start of Paralympic ambitions
09:11 How did faith play out as you trained to win at Beijing 2008
12:33 How did you come to faith?
16:11 Seeing God as a father
19:46 Winning Gold at Beijing 2008
23:48 Defending Gold and facing disappointment at London 2012
26:18 Identity in Christ, pressure & disappointment
29:47 Rio 2016 and retirement
34:34 Inspired to Become and supporting disabled young people


Transcript generated by AI. A more accurate transcript will be available shortly.

Graham Daniels: Well, Fanie, Great to have you with us. You know the first question. You're always told what it is. What does it mean for you to have your sport and your faith connected to play connected?

What's your answer to that starter?

Fanie van der Merwe: Hi, Graham thanks. It's good to be with you guys. And yeah. So, I think if you look at my journey. You know it's undeniable that God open doors for me to come into sport for people with disabilities. And yeah, so that was one of the things I’m thinking back of my your paralympic career was that I wanted to do this with God, and being a Christian, it was never like You're a Christian off the track. And now, coming onto the practice, you have a different identity. That was one, you know, like I was a Christian on and off the track. And that was my first identity, firstly. and a Son of God and then secondly, a sports person and you're just starting it with Jesus and remember ending it. And you thinking of back of Rio 2,016, standing on a track Just imagining Jesus being on the finish line waiting day for me and running into Jesus and on the finish line. And I think what also made it a bit easier was, I had a lot of friends training with me. That were Christians. And so, we were kind of a unit, and people respected us for being Christians, and it was also something new. Guys coming in. knowing that that they had an example to look up to. Yeah. So, I think it made it easier, being in a group that that had lots of be believers in.

Graham Daniels: Yeah, that I I've always found that interesting, funny, and knowing you for a number of years that the tightness of that training group elite training group in South Africa made a big impact on so many people because it was easy to join in with Christians in in training and playing and see what it looked like in a comfortable way. But we don't we, we'll come back to that, Rio, 2016, as indeed hugely successful times in Beijing, and no 8, and London 2,012, as well as real 16, and we'll unpack some of this. And you if you're happy with that, let me take you back to where you came in. You you're born with cerebral palsy. You're competing with able body children at school. and I've heard you say a number of times. You never saw yourself as disabled and yet as an 11 year old a teacher says to you, You should think about the disabled team, and that was a jolt, a joke to your comprehension of who you were and how sport would work.

Fanie van der Merwe: You know. I suggested to take your baggage was quite 11, so I was 17. Okay. Yeah, so. And I mean my thing was like I had lots of disappointment going up, knowing that like, so I knew there was something wrong with me, but I never saw it as a disability. And just for interest It's just the injury at birth on your cerebellum that basically seems messages to your muscles. So that's delayed and much weaker than my in my left side and also more spasticity in stress situations, things like that. So it was a big thing for me to make the team, and in grade 11 I actually made the athletics everybody team. So yeah, I always say that that if they. if I never achieve anything else that would have been enough. You know that's why I’m always so amazed.

Oh, yeah, just what God has done throughout my career, and giving me the opportunity to run and do sports. You know

Graham Daniels: that's a that's a pivotal moment, because having cerebral palsy, but being clearly, very, very, very able. And I’m making the team at Grade 11 a 17 year old.

What can you remind us so, or help us think through. Can you help us? Think through how you made the decision that you would head in the direction? Then, maybe with the ambition to the Paralympics. When did that start? What was the process of this shift? As you found yourself thinking? Okay, I could be really good at this. Actually.

Fanie van der Merwe: Yeah. So I remember I made the team. They, my coach said, okay, but going forward for the disabled team, and I was. So I went on the bus with my school team. So that was all our bodies, and we got to the competition, and then they had a section for Paris, portal or disabled, athletic. And so, all of a sudden, people will, asking me so why you running with them. And I was like. I'm also not exactly sure what my disabilities, but I know I have one, so I can run you. But so there was also kind of for me thrown into the big end of the pool. And that's where I kind of had to start accepting that I had a disability, you know, like first accepting it. But I wanted to know why? Quite a few years, and quite a few like years of participating and just almost getting into the community of people with disabilities, you know. So just to like. and you'll understand how it works, and all those kind of things. and then yeah, but I think so. So I realized when my teacher asked me that it would be opportunity for me to run with people on the same level, then we. you know. So I immediately saw it as a as an opportunity, and it was so then that that a lot of those open for me when I started.

Graham Daniels: But it was quick. You! It was pretty fast progression once you made that decision, and you were certainly in with a shout very quickly of Beijing in to 8. Tell us about first of all, heading for Athens in 2004, because you had a chance of that, didn't you?

Fanie van der Merwe: So 2004 was so 2003. I started with disabled sports. 2,004 was my first national championships. and so and then they selected obviously a long list of people going for 2004, but I didn't make the team so when I didn't make the team. But I knew I was considered to be maybe part of it. and I realized that okay if I work hard. and I made the team for 2008, and that was also in. Then we moved the Free State middle of the country to more of the Cape Town areas where I started studying in in 2006. So I took kind of a gap in 2005, 2006 as I started. Yes, training then with my coach design for era and a few other para athletes. And yeah, with the vision of 2008 in my in mind, and I remember then my dream was when it was someone asked me was that I want to make the team for the 2008, the Olympics.

Graham Daniels: We. We've interviewed Suzanne on this podcast series, and of course, an outstanding woman outstanding Coach fantastic Providence ending up at Stellenbosch, meeting her and joining the training group. That that process becomes very quick. Then doesn't it really you you're an international athlete very quickly. It is 2,008 in Beijing where wow, I mean it really, it really gets going. Doesn't it because you win the gold in the 100 and the 200 meters in Beijing in the process leading up to that.

What was the balancing act of your faith in sport there, as you dreamt that dream and achieved it, what were the stresses in that process?

Fanie van der Merwe: Yeah, I think just to do. You maybe also say, like you know it growing up really crying out sports, and really, you know, having big expectations, and then, almost all the time being disappointed. I got to a place where I said, okay? Well I don't think I have a career in sports, even though I saw a lot of my family members and brother, especially Chris, you know, just like selling in sport. But I made I kind of made this decision, My, all that I’m going to do it because I love it. And it's okay. If I don't get any way. And that was, I think, so crazy for me is that when I had that you're just attitude. We got any in terms. What I thought was. You know my disability, and what kind of you know, something that's holding me back. God send it around into a blessing and saying, but it's that exact thing that you thought was a case. I will send it into a blessing. And so it was for me. It was really kind of a journey of thankfulness, but also not being able to deny that it was God giving me this opportunity, and just like, but really as a gift, you know. So I saw it as a gift that that God has given me. and that I can really run with and really go all out, you know. Put everything into it, and just love it, you know and enjoy it. So that was kind of the I think the face part of it, and especially those first years. Obviously, there's a lot of tension and a lot of space as well leading up to, you know, knowing you guys to the paralympic games, seeing the them be knowing that you're going to be there in a few weeks time, and even seeing it from a young age, and you know Yes, there is a lot of stress and tensions. But seeing I got just as I was standing with so on the track, and maybe a few weeks before that, almost getting anxiety when just thinking of the race. but coming out onto the track and just having fish, you know, like we was this moment. We went to go watch the swimming, and then the first rate of my friend on the watching it on the track, and being in that stadium wanting to have all these, you know just the anxiety come. But then God just like kind of pushed it out, and I could just really relax in that moment, and I knew I would be okay. you know, doing this in front of you know, a big part of people.

Graham Daniels: we've talked, or you've mentioned your Christian faith right through this interview, and of course it's integrated into everything you are and have been, and will be. It sounds as if you had a personal living. Faith, as quite a young man. But what's the origin of that?

Fanie van der Merwe: Yeah. So I think. since it a young boy like I wanted to. You know. know that I'm. I'm a child of God. That was a big design, my heart. but I didn't know how to do that, you know, like, and my only way of thinking, of knowing how to do that was trying to live a good life. but in that same way just failing a lot. but also, in a sense, having spiritual pride. was I, and would look at others and think Well, I’m at least not that bad, or you know at least I’m not doing that. And but I was. There was always a big uncertainty in my heart off of knowing that that I’m that I’m got, you know. And even when you know I had opportunities to, you know. Give my life to the lord of this always. I was never sure until I was about your 16/17. I remember just speaking to someone saying, but I don't know why, but like, I always feel like I need to commit my life to Lord. If someone would give me that opportunity. and when we spoke and he just said, but you know it's not about what you know your works. It's about what Christ has done for you on the cross. and that's it. You free and give you salvation and on you they you know I don't have to ever like trying in my salvation again. I can know that it's what God has done for me, and that was, I think. my first of just and that salvation process. you know. But even after that, although I didn't doubt any more. there was no one really disciplined me, showing me how to work with Christ. So yes, going to university. That was the process of and just being disciples. We, someone would take that responsibility of mentoring me. And just. you know, going to the and understanding that disciplines through love and he's love with would help me. Yeah, with discipline me. So where I normally. you know would see discipline as that God is as I didn't see it as love. But yeah, so only then, like realizing that God says whom he loves he disciplines and who he accepts as sons. So that changed a lot of my yeah, just understanding about Christianity and God as a Father, and I can really also say that you know, through my athletics career I really got to know God as a father. Yes, and he's, and he's allowed for his children through to be just. You know my career in in showing himself to me as a father.

Graham Daniels: you've mentioned there the clarity, the growing clarity of God is your father, and how the Father's discipline was one of real love to you. Have you to explain a bit more about how that developed in your own life. Yeah. So I think just

Fanie van der Merwe: and growing up, I didn't really experience that much discipline from my parents. So and also so when someone would maybe correct me. Then I would see it, as you know, not as love. And I think. yeah. So growing into, you know, making mistakes. When I was corrected. I would see that, as you know. Not as love like, but broad as I always felt like. If I was in the wrong, and I felt conviction from God that there was a it almost like it was not happy with me, and you know is not loving, but more like stance.

And I realized that. and I actually was what's really struggling with. But am I in a child of God? You know, if I’m experiencing so much, you know discipline. But what's happening here, and then it was like I was struggling with that. And then. when I read that Scripture in.

I think it's Hebrews 12 have this 5 where it says that God's discipline does we love, and whom he accepts his sons. So when I read that I realized, oh, what has been happening, the whole time is that God he's disciplining me because I’m his son. That is, that is why it's disappointing me because I mean, Son, and that is what a father does he disciplines. Yeah. So, then it. It was actually that that that I am his son. and that's what is happening. It wasn't proof that that that I’m distant or I’m not seen as a time. So if that makes sense. and maybe to where I saw got more as a for the in my supporting their career was especially because we. If you're on top and and you performing well, then the crowd is steering, but as soon as you know you lose all you, you make a mistake. The crowd will be bashing you, you know so. and what I experience with God was when those things happened. I always experienced them as very near. and where he would walk with me through the highs and the lows he was. He was never like separating himself when things got tough. and we a lot of the times with the crowds, or you know fans would, would be distant when you're not doing good. You know they don't know how to handle it, you know, like people would even not engage with almost that that you know disappointments. They would try to stay away with God. What's really in it, you know, and in that time I could. I could experience him as being close or just getting to know him better, you know, because I could really run team in in in those times.

Graham Daniels: that that's really helpful, that, as you describe the way you came to a personal living faith, the lessons of learning discipleship. It makes an awful lot of sense of the way you describe getting ready for Beijing. You're watching your friends swim, you lords in this. He has you there you focused on him, and what he's given you to do. And you're calling in life. You make an awful lot of sense of that by telling us the back story. So thank you for that. So let's jump then, into Beijing, not watching somebody else compete a few days before, but you competing so double gold in Beijing. Talk us through what you expected to get that. Were you expected, or expecting to win gold.

Fanie van der Merwe: I had a good ranking. I think I was second. So I did obviously go into the games expectant. but obviously with the not a lot of nerves. And you know, not knowing what's going to happen. But I remember running my, my semi-finals. You are running a good race. And then, after me was the Chinese guy, my, you see, and I remember just looking at that race. I think I had 11.9, and he ran something like 11.2. and immediately my thought was just a guy I need to say to. for so there. But going back to my room. I just realized okay. But and you know I’m going to go for to run to when if I don't when it's fine, I’m not going to go into the games thinking, oh, I’m, I’m going to settle for silver. And I remember the song that that my judge gave me was, God will lift up your head soon and enjoy. and I just played that song. And I just said, well, I’m going to go for this. you know. And I’m actually going to believe that I’m going to win this race. I went into that race. believing that you know God. If you want so you can open it all for me. But if it doesn't happen it doesn't matter. I'm just going to go for up and crazy enough when we got into the call room for the final. and the Chinese guy was not there, and so they 8 classifiers went to go look at him and said, but he's not in the right cross. So you're very crazy that doesn't that doesn't happen, you know, if you, if you have a permanent cost coming to Paralympics like that's it like it doesn't change, you know. So there was a real crazy story for me, and it just of like I got opening up the door and creating this miracle, you know. Yeah, and it also felt like I was giving given to 2 old meals at my first paralympic games, you know. Yeah. So very crazy. The 200 meters you know. being in front in in this to right. And then just my legs started cramping up, and I could hear the guy. So game came up. But yeah, I just held on and went over the line first. So yeah, so a lot of, you know, good memories of raising 2008, and just also almost like it sounds like God was in to be intervening in my races, you know. just to keep my you first one to open the door, but also the second one, the 200 meter, just to lift up my, my legs to go to go over the line. You know this I mean with. If you start getting spasms, you know it's quite easy to run with that. Yeah. So it was. Yeah, really, really good memories.

Graham Daniels: How many people? Well, hardly anyone gets one Olympic games under their belt, let alone 2. You got 3. Meanwhile, you one commonwealth gold in Glasgow as well in 2,014. But I want to focus on London 2,012 in Rio 16. It's long time to be at the top, and so when you get 4 years in you're in London, you right at the top of the tree manage to reproduce your form, and when gold in the 100 again, very rare achievement to retain the gold at Olympic level the 200 on this occasion. I've heard you talk about this, and I’d love. I'd love our listeners and viewers to hear you on it, because this was a real. a real impactful moment in in your face on Korea. Right? Because it didn't quite go to plan, to say the least.

Fanie van der Merwe: Yes, yeah. So I think with the 200 meter I was the first South African athletes to compete. So they was a lot of expectation because of me being ranked first. I had the world record at the time. and just on paper. Everything said, I can do this, you know, like this race. I can. I can win this. And so, going into the race very confident. I remember Crazy thing walking out onto the track. You also think you? You know you're quite experienced because you've been here before, but stepping out onto that track and the Great Britain go one day first middle. and she was doing a victory lap on a wheelchair around the track, and the car just went crazy as I walked out onto the stadium, you know, on to the track. The crowd just started going crazy, and it didn't stop like so it was it by emotions. It's like, you know I couldn't control it. But in any case. on to the 200 meters came into the straight, and being in front for the yeah, up until, like the last 50 meters, I was in front. And then so yeah, from 150 to 200, you know, to a lost. 5 people came past me, so I ended up being 6, and in that race. and it really just felt as if my whole world just started came crumbling down, you know, like it. It was as if you could hear it and needle drop you on the athletic stand. And yeah, I just, and I remember just lifting my hands and walking off the track, you know. And but I think you know for me why it was so impactful was. I went back to my room that night. and just this race, you know, keeping like playing in my head over and over. and I knew that God wanted to speak to me, so I just went to go, and now I must also remember the games are started. So everyone is now hyper-focused. and so Yes, so I was sitting outside. and God just said to me, but for me I love you because you, my son, and not because you can win medals. and I’m proud of you, and that they like knowing that all my years I've tried to perform, to get that acceptance and to be someone. And now I didn't. I didn't have anything to give. you know, and basically all I had was for the next few days I had my worship to give God, and I just worship God. that for the next 3 days I would just put on worship and worship him. not having anything to give but worship. and that was such an amazing restoration. We got really restored me. It was as if that race they didn't even happen, you know, like so, and I had a week, so I was. I opened the games, and I finished the games. and that was your in that week. It was yeah, just amazing to. you know, to spend time with God, and just even, you know, just to be around people and talk about what happened. But I say to myself, I’m not going to go back to that race like and kind of. you know. Try and analyse the race. I only did that the and analysing after the race, but I could so people up into the detail what happened through that race, you know. People would love to just sit and listen to that, because I it was very clear my head what happened when what happened? So yeah, that was really a crazy experience. But I think the big thing was that I knew that that running the 100 and lining up on the 100, then God's love for me will not change, even if I had to fall in front of the line, you know. That was my first experience with athletics, and when I ran when I was 6 years old before school and I ran. I was in front, but I fell in front of the line, so I said to my, even if that had to happen, god's left me would not change, and that gave me a lot of confidence, super confidence. And finding my identity in Christ and being his Son not in. you know, can I perform while or not. and it doesn't mean that it's not crazy. It doesn't mean that you know. Now everything is sorted. It's almost like an onion where you need to feel, you know you need to feel that that to stay in that identity, and to really both on that identity, it's not something that's just it's there. And now you sort it, you know. Yeah.

Graham Daniels: it's really helpful. And I wouldn't mind spending the last few minutes we have together. Then talking because of what you've just articulated for us, how in 2,016 Rio, you take the bronze in the 100. But at this stage. Now you know you've been a long time at the top of the tree. and you start in a different direction. As we heard at the beginning you run inspired to become with your brother Chris. we'll talk about that work in just a moment. But your impact on athletes around the world, since you step back from competing on the international stage has been significant. across the disciplines and across the people that we know around the world. Because you can tell stories like this, like the one we've just heard from you and talk about the transition out of full-time athletics, and how you found

Fanie van der Merwe: navigating. Yeah. So I think I what was the great was? I had 4 years to just be paying myself for this journey like leaving athletics. And you know. like I always thought like it will be. It will be final, you know it. It would be a easy transition. but it was very difficult like leading up to 2016. It was as if I didn't want to let go, you know, like I was it was if I wanted to all onto what God is giving me, because it's mine now. and I remember I couldn't see it the night before I am I my last price. and God like I knew God wanted to speak to me. So I went outside and started speaking to God, and he said to me. I need to let go of the Athletics, because, you know. if I if I don't it will, it will break me, and I see him, but it's mine. I've worked for this for 12 years. I'm not just going to let it go now. and also in the back of my mind. It was that that gold medal, because it would have been then 3 consecutive time dating that they call for the 100 and God. Then you just say to me, let's go back. We were you 12 years ago, and it took me back to that little boy not having anything to that, for I mean not no, no, career in sport. And God saying, there's the gift. And I realized then it was this beautiful gift that God has given me. and he showed me that that he's going to move on now. So it was what he showed me that I can choose. I either move on with God, or I stay with athletics. But God's not going to be in it. So there was such a clear picture for me. and such a humbling experience as well, saying, Of course, God, I’ll! I'll give it up, you know, like so that was the moment I’m I said. Yes, Lord, I’m going to give it up, and I’ll cause I want to go with you. I knew that lyrics was placed because of God. He was in it. And so it was such a like. Yeah, exciting thing as well, you know, knowing that I’m going with God and I’m leaving his legs behind. you know, and I think it's so crazy because when I left as did it, it was. it was almost like. you know, just a season of my life that God gave me athletics. but it wasn't, and now it was gone again, you know. So now it's behind me, and it's something that got almost just used to shape me. Give me experience. But now we're going, you know. so almost like a pit stop for my life if I could say it like that in in all respect. And But yeah, it was a very crazy moment, you know, to let go and just almost the last yeah, race as a as a thank offering just to go and run and give it everything I have, you know, and it was an amazing experience. seeing my training partner Charla Du Toit taking the Gold where in at last season. We even me. We're fighting it, and I’ll then I will, when you know, in taking the gold and the lost race and myself and Muhammad we had the same time. At 11.54, He got the silver I got the bronze. Yes.

Graham Daniels: So that's 2016. Rio. You had a huge impact. Both with Inspired to Become in in your own country, working on an alternative action, sports and athletes with disabilities, particularly for you. with the visually and intellectually impaired children. And as I indicated earlier, you've been able to be a terrific mentor to numerous athletes around the world through the sports movement that we belong to the Christian sports movement. Where are you at today? How do you see where things are at today, and what the Lord's got for you and he's doing with you.

Fanie van der Merwe: Yeah, I think just to maybe mention as well. And when me and my brother started, inspired to become.

And so we really felt that, you know, with the challenge of the things God has given us, we want to make an impact. Growing up. I really wanted to play sports with my brother Chris, and he was always like this guy that you know, very talented in, in, in in most things, or everything that he did so, always looking up to him. But in a sense he was never a good man, sir. only when you found the Lord. Then he turned like that, and he was the most amazing man to and brother that you could ask for. And now God just changed that. So my desire to really play sport with him. and at the end got really satisfied that that desire of my heart. because now we started ministry together. and being in in the same team for God. And now the ministry together, and seeing that, and just running with him. You know that race. and you know, instead of trying to compete against him. And yeah, so it really just played out so well and amazing how God can also in that sense, just change things around.

But yes, I think you know. for the last few years, just being part of and you know, developing youth at schools so intellectual school for visiting payments, and then at my local club.

Different disabilities coming mostly youth. But I’m also focusing a lot now on a bit more senior athletes, because of the you guys growing, going into senior yes, and just, you know, being able to spend time with them on a daily basis. And just also. you, you know, as you would travel in a team, and when I was an athlete now I can travel with a team and as a coach for a bigger group of people and mostly youngsters. But yeah, it's just so. So being involved and really seeing people grow, and you know also that thing off so cause a lot of the time people with disabilities that Don't really see sometimes the hope or the opportunities. So it's a lot of it time almost like getting a second chance. you know, and seeing people grabbing that with everything they have, and just going full out with. That is really something that that inspires me, and that I really want to see the youth, you know. Yeah, get those opportunities

Graham Daniels: Fanie, your story is inspirational because you certainly grabbed an opportunity which came straight in front of you as a 17 year old, and really ran with it and continue to do so to today. Thanks for being inspirational to many of us all around the world from your Stellenbosch base and we wish you well. We were you and Chris: Well. and thanks for your time today.

Fanie van der Merwe: Yeah, thanks so much Graham. It was really a pleasure to be with you and to just share my story.

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