As Tyrone Pillay, aka The Gentle Giant, prepares to start his impossible in Tokyo, Japan at the 2020 Summer Paralympics, we chat to him about his journey and how his preparations have been affected by the pandemic.
When Tyrone won a bronze medal in the men’s shot-put F42 event at the 2016 Summer Paralympics, he earned the nicknames, The Gentle Giant and The Showman. He also made Toyota extremely proud, having worked in the IT Department at Toyota for 15 years. Tyrone was the first person outside of Japan to receive an award from Akio Toyoda, the President of Toyota Motor Corporation, for bringing the whole of the Toyota family, 350 000 people around the world, together in support of him during the 2016 Paralympic Games. This launched The Gentle Giant into the limelight, but it wasn’t an easy journey to get there.
He is furthermore inspired by Toyota’s Start Your Impossible campaign, which is an impassioned call to action that’s designed to create a more inclusive society. Start your Impossible is close to Tyrone’s heart as every single human being is encouraged to reach for and attain his or her personal best.
The start of his impossible journey
Tyrone grew up in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal and was born with an incomplete left leg, equivalent of an above knee amputation. He started walking at 10 months when his family scraped all their savings together to buy him his first prosthetic leg.
By the age of three, his dream of wearing green and gold and representing his country formed and it took him 30 years to achieve it. At the age of 41, he is going to his second Paralympics.
“You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.”
Supportive family and a love for cricket
I have the most amazing parents ever, they helped me get to where I am. You can’t get to this level without support structures. My parents raised me to be good to people and treat them with respect.
My whole life has been about sport. I played cricket for 14 years and got to a point where I could bowl around 140km/hr. I was a good cricketer but was told I could never be selected for a team due to my disability. Hearing the words, “You will never be picked for an able-bodied sport” really hurt.
If I had been given the opportunity with cricket, who knows what I would have achieved? I still train alongside a lot of Protea players, they often ask me to bowl at them in the nets.
I qualified as a Level 2 cricket coach, but I think I’m not meant to coach because I can be too hard due to my passion. It breaks me if I don’t see the same passion in the kids. I can only work with people who show 100% dedication.
So, I had to find another sport where I could achieve my goal, and this is when I discovered athletics.
“I always look at the negative and try and turn it into a positive.”
Making mobility possible through Jumping Kids
I have such a desire to give kids an opportunity to be mobile because I know what it meant to me and how hard it was for my parents to afford the prosthetics.
Working with Jumping Kids (a non-profit organisation that provides access to lower limb prosthetic solutions to children living with amputations) has been the most rewarding thing in my life. I always wanted to be part of a project that can contribute to something greater. Winning a medal is great but how you measure without the medal is even better. I’m more passionate about the work with Jumping Kids than winning a medal.
Jumping Kids gives me an opportunity to create a legacy from the work that I do. Tomorrow I will be gone but the kids will continue. I never went to the Paralympic Games just to win a medal or to break records, I went to inspire and motivate people to achieve. If I achieve that then I feel that I have achieved something of value.
Achieving the impossible – the power of having a full crowd
Having no crowds at the SA National Championships, in Gqeberha, due to COVID didn’t affect me as we don’t have many crowds in SA anyway. I have never competed at a National Championship in front of a crowd apart from when my family and friends have come to watch.
When I go overseas that is different; I have competed in front of up to 70 000 people, so I know the feeling of competing in front of large crowds. I thrive off the crowds, having the presence of people screaming and cheering for me, just takes me to another level. This is where my nickname, The Showman, comes from, I just love being in front of people in that atmosphere.
If you look at my history of competing at SA Nationals, I’ve never thrown further than 12,70m. But when I compete overseas, I throw 13m like its nothing. I don’t push myself that hard in SA because I never feel that energy from the crowds, which is sad.
The uphill battle of being a disabled sportsman
These are things that need to change in the sport. We need to get people coming to watch. The more support we can get, the better our athletes will get.
We need to transform the Paralympic movement in SA. We have so little support, particularly in terms of sponsorship. The sport is going to die without spectators and financial backing. Our leadership needs to understand that we need to transform. We have to be able to reinvent ourselves, COVID has shown us that.
I have competed in able-bodied events in SA and people feel sorry for me. They come up to me after the event and say, “Oh, try harder next time, you will get there.”
There is no money or recognition in disabled sport. We need to make it a professional career, so the youngsters will stick to it. It’s really hard to have to work a 9-5 job and train and cover all the costs of training. I funded myself for seven years as I had a dream to get to the Paralympics. But there is only so much that you can do.
Our government needs to step up; they cut my funding in November 2019, just a few months before the Olympics. That was when I needed that support the most, but they just cut me off and stopped my funding. That made me want to stop and had a big effect on me mentally. Now suddenly, I have to use all my earnings to cover all my training costs. As disabled athletes, we get no money from any events that we attend, whereas able-bodied athletes get paid.
Impossible to train during lockdown
Not being able to train for six months was one of the hardest things. I live in an apartment, so not being able to go outside as I don’t have a garden was really hard. I was getting really depressed after being so focussed on the Paralympic Games and now I didn’t even know if it was going to happen. I was not in a good space.
After the first five weeks, I was really negative and was even toying with the idea of calling it quits. I felt that I can’t do this anymore. Nobody was helping us. We couldn’t get onto the track or into the gym. No federations or sporting bodies were helping or supporting us or saying that they need to get behind us athletes and support us. That was one of the hardest things because nobody cared about us. You win a medal, but nobody cares.
‘I’m like a solider that goes to war. When I get out there I give everything that I have got.’
Rebuilding the impossible
I was in a bad mental space and it was a challenge to get out of it. You start planning years in advance for a big event and there is so much mental adjustment that you have to do. There is a lot of planning around when to taper, how to prepare, and all of that but that all went out the window. I lost a lot of technical abilities in my throwing by losing six months of training.
Being a strong-minded person with the great support structures that I have around me, like my family and a great psychologist, we worked through everything and went back to the basics: focus on what you can control, not on what you can’t.
The sad part is that the athletes that I compete with, in Europe and other countries, had no restrictions so they were able to train. They were posting videos of them in the gym and throwing. This disheartened me as their performances just kept going up and we weren’t even allowed to train.
At the World Champs 2019, I came 7th and was in fairly good shape, so I thought that by 2020 I would be able to up my distance by about 1m and that would have easily taken me into getting a medal for SA. Then suddenly after lockdown, my competitors were coming out of nowhere and throwing way further than I could at World Champs. They weren’t even close to my distances at World Champs and now they are throwing way further than me. Plus, they had their coaches with them. My coach lives in Denmark so how was I supposed to get to him? We could only do video chats. So, that has given us a real disadvantage.
We were only allowed to start competing again at the end of 2020, my competitors were competing all the way through 2020. I could not get to any international competitions. It was such a knock to my mental preparation. These struggles were real. I am a guy that needs to compete because I need to measure myself against the other athletes.
I’ve been really good about COVID and have very little contact with other people. I go to the track and gym, and I only have contact with my trainer. My contact with my family has been limited because I don’t want to put them at risk, and we usually spend a lot of time together.
It has been super tough not being able to see my nephews and family members, especially my mom. It has been such a challenge because I’m a real people’s person. Since COVID, I feel as if I am really hardened now because I have so little interaction with people. It’s like I’m living in a bubble.
Reinventing the impossible
I would lie if I said that I didn’t feel the pressure that comes with going to Japan, but I love the pressure, it’s what I thrive on. I turn the pressure into my motivation.
Toyota had bought a whole section of the stand just behind where I was going to throw. The mere fact that I was going be able to turn around and see an entire section of the crowd just for me, was just the most amazing thing. I had been visualising how awesome that would be looking up and having the whole stand supporting me. Then suddenly, that was ripped away.
So, now I’m reinventing, in the sense that I go into a training session, and I imagine the people around me. I get that feeling and understanding that visualisation of people in the crowd is how I jeer myself up. I did this at a competition in Pretoria recently and it felt so good. I visualised people were around me and screaming my name. My aggression and energy started really coming out again.
There is word that spectators at the Paralympics won’t be allowed to scream and shout. So, it will be like the same thing as having an empty stadium and we will have to visualise the people screaming and shouting.
Usually, when I walk onto the field, I go out there waving my hands, calling the people. I have even learned Japanese so that I can talk to the people. In Rio, I learnt Portuguese. The crowds love it when we interact and talk to them. And now we can’t do that. I need to be careful not to get the spectators kicked out of the stadium for getting them to shout.
The Gentle Giant
I love being called The Gentle Giant, it makes me feel like The Hulk. The gentle shy guy who is hesitant to come out but when he does then he just bursts out. That is exactly how I feel at the moment.
I can die today and say that I have achieved my goal. I have achieved everything that I ever wanted to achieve. It’s not about the age that you live to, it’s about how you lived your life. I have enjoyed my life.
As a kid, I always questioned why I had been born this way. I was mocked and bullied at school, and I always asked God if I had done something wrong. But then I found my purpose: to inspire and motivate people and everything became so much better.
That is my driving force, to show people that you can achieve anything you want. Like yesterday, I deadlifted 200kgs, no one-legged guy does 200kgs. Not even able-bodied people do. But the fact that I can shows that there are no excuses. It’s all in your mind. If you want to achieve something, then go out, put your mind towards it and do it. Most people don’t achieve their goals because they are too quick to make excuses. I don’t live on excuses; I just go there and give it 150 % every day.
At a point, people used to pull their kids away from me because they thought I was a plague. The more we educate people to understand the different types of disabilities, the better it will get. And it starts with me, if I can educate the world about what disability is, then things will get better.
Being a Toyota Ambassador
I love being a Toyota Ambassador as it gives me more leverage for how we can change things, especially for Jumping Kids. I’m not well-known in SA, but globally I get a lot of publicity, especially in America. They even named an ice-cream after me. At an event in America, they had huge pictures and billboards up of me. In SA, there is nothing.
I went to an event in Europe where Dr Johan van Zyl did a presentation. He used to be the CEO President of Toyota SA and then moved over to Europe. He told everyone about this little boy who used to stand outside his door to check that his connection worked when he had his 3am meetings. That was me, because I was the IT guy making sure that his system was working. It was so special to me when he acknowledged me.
“Paralympics has the ability to inspire the world.”
My Toyota Fortuna makes it all possible
I drive a Toyota Fortuna and I love the car. I’m a big guy, 185cm and 116kg, so the size of the vehicle suits me. It does everything for me. I have so much stuff that I carry around with me. I have two huge prosthetic legs that I use to compete, I have a running leg, my gym stuff, all my shot-puts that are over 6kg each. The Fortuna has the space for all of this. Plus, it’s a beautiful ride. The new spec Fortuna, they have done so well with it. The way the car rides, the performance is just phenomenal. They have upped their game so much. I’m going to be so sad when I have to give the Fortuna back at the end of my ambassadorship.
“This new Fortuna is just next level.”
While working for Toyota, I’ve always been blessed to be supplied with one of their cars, so I have driven nearly all of the Toyota range and I love all of them. Because it’s my left leg, I can drive any automatic car without any adaptations. My family has always driven Toyotas because my gran worked for them from 1960 and she refused to drive anything else.
Driving is possible
Mobility means freedom, choice, and opportunity. Driving gave me that independence and freedom. It’s exactly the same as getting a prosthetic leg. It allows you to be you and not be depending on anyone. I jump in my car and get everything done. I see my friends in wheelchairs and how much they struggle, and it makes me so grateful that I can just jump in the car and go.
I got my licence as soon as I turned 18. My father was very reluctant and wasn’t keen for me to drive so young but for me I just wanted to rush to get things done. My brother, who is four years older than me, only got his licence the week after me. When his sons ask him why I got my licence before he did, he says that you can’t keep Tyrone down, he is that guy that wants to go out there and achieve.
I realised how important driving is when it enabled me to go to university and when I got a job and was able to drive there. I have driven in nearly all the countries that I have gone to.
Impacting other people with disabilities
I have never made an impact on anyone’s life. The reason being that when I acknowledge that fact it means that I’m going to be content and won’t push myself harder to achieve greater things for the community. So, I tell myself that I haven’t impacted anyone until I die. That will be the time that I might acknowledge that I impacted people’s lives. But for now, it’s another driving force.
I see things differently from other people. For example, I did a charity event for Jumping Kids a few years ago and set myself a target of raising R1 000 000. I had to run up 500 steps and if I got sponsored for each step I could raise the million. But I only raised R850 000 and I was so disappointed and angry in myself. I hated the fact that I had not achieved my goal. I was gutted. The people around me encouraged me to look at the R850 000 that I had raised and acknowledge how many kids would be able to get prosthetic legs with that money. It’s a lesson that I’m still learning, to be less focused on the target and start enjoying the ride that comes with it.
Believe in the Impossible
To be honest, I don’t want aspiring athletes to want to be like me. That’s a bad combination. When people reach out to me I always say, “Believe in your own dreams.” I was a dreamer, that nobody believed in. Not a single person believed that one day I was going to make it to this point. I look back at my journey and all that I have achieved, and I am wowed that I got to live everything that I had dreamed about. I dreamt about going onto the podium wearing green and gold, I got to see the SA flag being raised, a medal presented to me, having the honour of being the first South African Indian to win a medal.
Always believe in your dreams. When people broke me down and told me that it wasn’t possible, I have to be grateful to them because if they hadn’t told me that it wouldn’t have spurred me on to achieve what I have, and I wouldn’t be here today. Like the people who tormented me at school, I phoned them and thanked them for bullying me. They ask me what I mean. I tell them that if it weren’t for them bullying and pushing me down, I wouldn’t have picked myself up to where I have got to now. I am who I am because of them.
I showed people that no matter what they throw at me, I will come back 10 times harder. I will give it everything I have got. I’m proud of what I have achieved. I’m proud of the fact that I have followed my dreams.