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30 September 2021 | in FISU Athletes

South Africa’s Van Staden continues to inspire

Despite the numerous challenges life has thrown into the path of Joshua van Staden, the talented South African student-athlete remains steadfast, determined and focused, with a positive mindset that all who meet him cannot help but be inspired by.


Born with Achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, Joshua was raised along with his brother by their single mother, but at a young age faced several health problems due to his condition.


“I had more than three operations done on my body, with spinal decompression undertaken at the age of seven and leg straightening thereafter, as my legs were bowed and I tripped over my feet when running. I believe that I am machine, because only machines get upgraded and rehabilitated at times,” he says with a chuckle.


Despite his love for football and cricket at a young age, the surgeries prevented him from playing contact sports, and he subsequently struggled with low self-esteem, admittedly mixing with the wrong crowd while turning to food for comfort, leading to obesity in his teenage years. A doctor recommended his mother take him for swimming lessons to help manage his weight, before a physiotherapist later encouraged him to participate in sports competitions for people with disabilities while he was in primary school.


“At first I didn't want to, but the physiotherapist insisted I can be good at it,” he reveals. “I then started practicing javelin, shotput and discus. Later during a school sports competition, I was chosen to try out for the provincial team. I qualified to participate at the SASAPD (South African Sports Association for Physically Disabled) National Championships where I won gold in javelin, shotput and discus, and also obtained my South African colours. I believe my physiotherapist believed in me and saw my potential, and she is the reason I got involved in para athletics.”

After completing high school in Cape Town, he enrolled into Stellenbosch University, where he is currently a second-year student studying Theology, and strives to find a balance between his academics and sport on a daily basis.


“I have learnt over the past few years that being an athlete is often a lonely journey and I had to learn to balance study time for my academics and my sports activities as well. Those are my two priorities: I do six hours of learning and study and four hours a day of training.”


“It’s very important to be educated. It’s like having a car: you can’t have a good, shiny car without gas inside of it. Education plays a huge role in learning and teaching and growing as an individual. It can be the stepping-stone and a valuable asset when you retire from sports.”


Joshua competes alongside ten other para athletes in his university, but says he hopes to soon change the landscape of university para sport to give future para athletes more opportunities.


“Currently the university doesn’t accommodate people with disabilities to compete at national events. One of my goals when leaving Stellenbosch University is to make that platform available for future stars and myself to compete, so that there is a form of inclusivity,” he says.


Despite representing South Africa as a national para athlete, with his highlight being his coveted gold medal at the 2019 Junior World Championships, the 21-year-old rues the lack of support for the para sport community, highlighting the many struggles he has had to face in pursuing his dream.


“Financial income for training camps for athletes and the development of South African youth in para athletics are major challenges for us,” he says. “I remember it took me two years to find the correct coach who knew how to coach athletes with disabilities. Often there is no current equipment or facilities to train with. Before achieving my South African colours, I didn't have the proper sports shoes and I achieved my South African colours by wearing a pair of my own sneakers! That is something so simple, but would contribute immensely to a person’s success.”


Despite all the obstacles, Joshua remains as determined as ever in his commitment to his sport.


“Some people really question how I got this far in my career. The simple answer is that I showed up every day. I feel like the more athletes show up, the more change will be brought towards para sports in South Africa. Sport inspires me everyday, showing me that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. As motivational speaker Les Brown says, ‘No matter how bad it is or how bad it gets, I am going to make it!’”


The South African F41 category record-holder in both javelin and shot-put missed out on the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, but answers with steely resolve when asked if he hopes to participate in the Paralympic Games in future.


“I don’t believe in the word ‘hope’, because it leaves a gap for uncertain decisions,” he states. “I believe that I will be working hard to represent South Africa at the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games.”


That remains his short-term goal. In the long-term Joshua, who sites his mother as his biggest motivation, will continue his studies while also continuing his hobby as a musician, youth worker and motivational speaker, activities he foresees in his future career.


“I'll continue in sports until I have achieved everything I have set out for myself,” he says.


“I'll hope to get into Youth Development and also plan to study towards another degree through my university. As a motivational speaker, I'll be looking in the future how can I apply these talents of mine in a working environment.”


Images courtesy of Reinhardt Hamman Photography

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