Paralympian Wheelchair Racer, Beijing Paralympic Gold Medallist, Laureus Award Winner, 10 times Boston Marathon Winner
If you add the number of miles wheelchair athlete and hand-cyclist Ernst van Dyk races in a season, it’s second only to the distance he has to fly to get to the starting lines. With South Africa as his home base, Ernst annually competes in many handcycle and wheelchair races across the globe.
Ernst was born with congenital birth defects. “This child will suffer from a lack of quality of life due to his disability”, the doctor told his parents. “You should put him up for adoption.” But Ernst’s parents took him home and later noticed his affinity for sports. Despite his disability they encouraged him to participate in gymnastics, table tennis, track & field and swimming.
Ernst preferred swimming and at the Barcelona Paralympics in 1992, at the age of 19, he finished fifth in the final of his event. However, he also qualified for the semi-finals in one of the wheelchair events. This track appearance turned out to be pivotal in Ernst’s career: The cheer of the crowd as he circled the track prompted him to quit swimming and concentrate solely on wheelchair racing.
Since then Ernst hasn’t looked back and has established himself as one of the best wheelchair athletes and, more recently, handcyclists in the world. His consistent achievements were duly recognised in 2006 when he received a Laureus Award (the Oscars of sport) for the best disabled athlete in the world across all sport disciplines. At the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, Ernst won his first gold medal in handcycling. He followed this up with silver in London in 2012. In 2014, Ernst won his tenth Boston Marathon – a record number of titles across all divisions at the world’s oldest, most prestigious marathon.
Regardless of his 23 years as an elite competitor, Ernst says his biggest personal accomplishment was earning his university degree, making him the first ever disabled person to graduate with a degree in Sport Science from the University of Stellenbosch.
When not training or competing, Ernst loves to share his life experiences with others and inspires them to be the best they can be. Over the years, this has made him a top motivational speaker. From primary school children to board members of some of the best known companies around the world, he has given them all the tools and motivation to overcome whatever stumbling blocks come their way.
When Ernst considers the difficult day of his birth, he sees it as a second chance at life instead of the upset it could have been. The doctor said he would lack quality of life. Ernst instead uses these words to fuel the flame of victory inside him.