Ready to roll: The prowess and passion of UP wheelchair rugby star Okkie Anker

Posted on October 28, 2019

“No matter what happens, never give up – keep on giving your best. Your best is all that will result in you ending up on top.” This was the message Tuks wheelchair rugby player Okkie Anker had for the Springbok rugby team ahead of their Rugby World Cup final match against England on Saturday 2 November.

Yet these very words also sum up the attitude of the 25-year-old wheelchair rugby star – who was left paralysed after an accident during a rugby match – on and off the field.

“I made a promise that I would never allow myself to become a victim and end up feeling sorry for myself,” says Anker, who was part of the Tuks team that faced off against the Mustangs in the South African Wheelchair Rugby League final recently played at the University of Pretoria’s Groenkloof Sportsgrounds.

While the team from Bloemfontein won the match, they certainly had their work cut out for them.

Anker seems to flourish in the role of game-breaker, and was in the thick of things for most of the match. If he wasn’t doing the scoring, he was setting up a teammate to do so.

Anker used to be an avid rugby player, but in 2011 while playing for Hoërskool Zwartkop, his life changed after a scrum collapsed. Playing at hooker, he took the brunt of the impact, which resulted in him breaking his neck. Anker was 17 years old. Since then, he has gone from strength to strength, and is now able to walk independently with some difficulty.

“Part of our rehabilitation was playing wheelchair rugby,” Anker says. “I took a liking to it immediately, as it is one of only a few contact sports for disabled athletes.” He says that most of the country’s top players train at least twice a week. “That is after doing a full day’s work. We don’t mess around when we train. It is full bash from start to finish. It is because we are so passionate about the game – but it is one thing to train and something else to play internationally.”

He played for the South African wheelchair rugby team in 2015 – in fact, that was the last time the national team was in action. The sad reality is that lack of sponsorship means the country’s best wheelchair rugby players have a slim chance of competing at another Paralympic Games. This is in spite of South Africa being the only country in Africa that has national wheelchair rugby leagues and tournaments.

As South Africans were caught up in the excitement of the Bokke making it to the World Cup final, Anker made a heartfelt plea to the team, the government, and South Africans in general:  “Wheelchair rugby unites [people],” says Anker. “We as paralysed people are stronger together: we love the game and we give hope to youngsters by saying that life is not over if you end up in a wheelchair. There are new opportunities starting – but we need sponsorship to play overseas and get our country’s name out there. Hopefully in the next few years, we can get to the Paralympics.”

Despite the uncertain future of national wheelchair rugby, Anker remains positive about his future. “For me, my accident was the start of a new life, and I am planning to live it to its fullest. “My philosophy has always been that life owes you nothing – life is what you make of it.”

- Author Wilhelm de Swardt

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