Stories

God used my disability for His glory

Date posted: 14/07/17

Niel Louw

 

As the World Para Athletics Championships get under way in London, read the inspirational story of former sprinter Niel Louw. Find out why he says: "It’s not the arm that I lost that really matters, but all the countless blessings that I have gained in this race of life.”

On Boxing Day 1984, Niel Louw was caught in a freak electrical accident that changed his life forever. He, his brother and a friend were towing a catamaran yacht towards a lake in the Southern Cape of their native South Africa when its mast touched an overhead powerline. Instantly 11,000 volts surged through their bodies.

Niel said: “Medically speaking, it was an absolute miracle that we survived."

The accident meant 16-year-old Niel had his left arm amputated below the shoulder and saw him in great pain for months afterwards. Having been a keen athlete and rugby and tennis player, his promising sporting career looked in doubt. Already a Christian, Niel then discovered how God would use this seemingly bleak situation for great good.

Less than eight years after the accident, he was competing as a sprinter at the Barcelona 1992 Paralympics. Niel went on to win two Paralympic bronze medals and much more during a successful career. Having sought to share his faith in Jesus wherever and with whoever he could as an athlete, retirement from the track has seen Niel move into full-time Christian work. He now helps lead a ministry which is focussed on bringing the good news of Jesus to the world of disability sport.

The accident

Niel LouwBack in 1984, as well as the amputation, the teenage Niel required numerous skin grafts following the accident, but he was still able to find peace.

He said: "In the ensuing months of pain, suffering and discomfort, however, I became increasingly aware that nothing could separate me from the love of God.

"The reality dawned on me that I had been given a second chance in life. That's why I wanted to serve the Lord more diligently than before.”

Niel added: "Looking back, God really changed the disadvantage into an opportunity.

"My entrance into the world of disability sport opened doors for me and gave me opportunities I could never have encountered.

"A few days after the accident, the doctor told me that he felt certain that I would participate in sport once again. Little did we realise then that eight years later I would be representing South Africa at the Paralympic Games."

Niel Louw

The Barcelona Olympic Stadium

Becoming a Paralympian

Niel began his disability athletics career in 1986 and earned his Springbok colours in 1991. A year later, he was competing at the Barcelona Paralympics. Describing his feelings on lining up in the 200m final, Niel said: "I knew it would be a tough one, but I knew there was a realistic prospect of getting a medal."

Niel was even warned after almost false starting, but held his nerve.

"You can just imagine the tension in that arena,” he said. “I will never forget it. At the end, the relief to win that bronze medal was absolutely amazing, fantastic.”

Four years later in Atlanta, the Paralympics had grown substantially – and Niel was again on the podium.

He said: "The team won 28 medals and I was fortunate once again to win a bronze medal at this truly spectacular event.”

Niel Louw

 

Intense rivalry

Niel relished competing throughout his athletics career and enjoyed a healthy rivalry with the Nigerian sprinter Adeoye Ajibola, who was a dominant force at the time. Therefore when he finally beat him in 1999, it proved a real highlight.

“He had the world record in the 100m and 200m for years,” said Niel. “I think his record was only beaten at the Rio Paralympics. I was fortunate to beat him some years later in 1999 at the African Games in Johannesburg. That was when I won a gold medal.

“It was against all expectation. We were running the 200m. I realised that there was an opportunity to catch up and I just closed the gap. Coming into the straight, I was two or three metres behind him. In the last 10 metres, all of a sudden, he just lost rhythm and pace and I closed the gap. I could smell it [victory]. It was just like a magnet pulling me over the line. I was overwhelmed. It was just a really special moment.”

 

 

 You can hear Niel Louw's story in the Christians in Sport Podcast series.  

Sweat and tears

A year on from this high, Niel experienced a massive low when his Sydney 2000 hopes were ended by a hamstring injury. The blow reminded Niel his athletic success did not make him exempt from disappointment.

He said: “I was well prepared. I was 32 years old and was running great times. I was a real contender for a medal. Halfway down the track my left hamstring tore. It was a third degree hamstring tear. I was in pain, I was disillusioned, I was just overwhelmed. Afterwards, in the medical centre, I couldn’t distinguish between tears and just pure sweat.

“I was expected to medal and to stand on the podium, but I was pushed around in a wheelchair by my wife for the next few days.”

This blow hit Niel hard, but one Bible verse proved crucial in getting his perspective straight.

“One night I read Nehemiah 8 verse 10. It said ‘the joy of the Lord is my strength’. I was really struggling with God and I came to the point where the reality dawned on me that God was in control. He knew what was best and He had a perfect plan and purpose for my life.”

Niel Louw

 

 Retirement from athletics

Niel originally hung up his spikes in 2001, but he attempted a comeback for Beijing 2008 as part of a South African relay team.

He said: “It was a close encounter. We broke the world record, myself and three others. We would have won a medal with that time, but only a small squad was selected and that was the end of my career.”

Sharing faith and encouraging believers

Niel was keen to live out the gospel in the world of sport God had placed him in – and that shaped the work he is involved in today.

“I would emphasise the importance of walk the talk,” he said. “Your life needs to be a testimony. By God’s grace, I maintained great relationships with my fellow team members and there were many opportunities to share my faith.”

In one example, Niel was able to point his teammates to Jesus as they and he struggled to come to terms with his injury at Sydney 2000. That same Games saw Niel meet and pray with a Zimbabwean sprinter, who won 100m gold. The pair were able to encourage each other in faith.

Niel said: “His journey ended triumphantly and mine in despair, but God was glorified in both.”

Niel Louw

 

“The body of Christ in action”

Christian fellowship played a key role for Niel back then as it does now. He described this as “the body of Christ in action”.

Niel said: “It was always important for me to be an active member in a local church and I always had the support and spiritual family of people who were really involved in my life personally.

“The fact that I had a small group of people, an accountability group, prepared me to stay focussed and really make a difference wherever I went and wherever I was involved.”

Ministry

Niel felt God prepared him to serve Him in the world of disability sport while he was competing as he was able to build up great friendships.

He said: “I realised the important and profound role that I can play within the ambit of sport for disabled people worldwide. I believe that God called me for such a role as this.”

Three years ago, this vision became a reality for Niel and his team.

He said: “We have a ministry, which I am leading by God’s grace, where it is our vision to be living, telling and knowing the gospel in obedience to the Bible and fulfilment to the Great Commission, reaching out to disabled communities of the world. I have a team from various countries supporting me and we really endeavour to reach people with the love of Christ, not only proclaiming the gospel, but also serving them and discipling them.

“It’s not only for athletes either. It’s for all people within the ambit of the sporting world for people with disabilities. We are talking about coaches, managers, teachers, trainers and all officials – people dealing with and interacting with athletes with disabilities.”

Elite athletes

Niel LouwNiel said the increased profile of disability sport in recent years meant ministry like this was increasingly needed, but that it was now a harder place to be a Christian.  

He said: “We nowadays have real true elite and high profile athletes, some of them competing full-time. We have a huge role to play, especially at major sporting events with regard to chaplaincy and to reach out and address the needs of athletes.

“I have realised the importance of following in the footsteps of Jesus and to be real. Being a Christian sportsman, I just realised the importance of integrity and to walk the talk.

“Since sport creates images that capture the hearts of people, it has the potential to shape the lives of people. Therefore I have much more of a responsibility nowadays to ensure that people’s lives are being shaped and that God is really glorified by the way that Christian athletes compete.”

Player mentality

One message Niel is keen to tell Christian athletes is that they are born to play.

He said: “I think it is also important to convey to athletes that they should live out the player mentality that they were born with to really glorify God.

“I think it’s a real challenge to still motivate the athletes to still find delight in competing despite the competitive arena that they find themselves in and to really make a difference in the lives of their fellow athletes. That’s why it’s so important to engage them in Bible study and chaplaincy programmes on a longer term in order for them to really make a difference in the lives of people they are competing against.”

Niel Louw

 

Philosophy

Niel was asked to devise a motto to be displayed in the clubhouse at Sydney 2000. It has proved truly inspirational.

He said: “I was thinking a little bit and then it just came to mind. It sounds like this: ‘It’s not the arm that I lost that really matters, but all the countless blessings that I have gained in this race of life.”


As you read and listen to Niel’s story, why not pray for more disabled athletes to come to faith and be built up as followers of Jesus.


 

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Ed Mezzetti

Ed Mezzetti, City of York Athletic Club
Ed runs for City of York Athletic Club and is Digital Content Manager for Christians in Sport. He is a member of St Thomas' Church, York