Indomitable Paralympian Kat Swanepoel on course for Paris Paralympic Games

The story of the indomitable Kat Swanepoel deserves to be told the world over, it’s a story of resilience and winning against all odds. Diagnosed with a progressive multiple sclerosis at 21, Tokyo Paralympian Swanepoel is chasing another bite at Games glory. All Photo: Supplied

When you check the word ‘Indomitable’ in the dictionary, it means “Impossible to subdue, something that cannot be beaten.” People described as having indomitable spirits don’t need pep talks or protein shakes; their strength comes from within.

The adjective indomitable starts with the Latin prefix in, which means “not.” The second part of the word is also from the Latin word domitare, meaning “to tame.” So the word literally means “not able to be tamed.” Indomitable is often teamed with the words spirit or personality to describe someone with a can-do attitude.

And in all honesty, a photo of Kat Swanepoel should be next to the word. Her story is one of resilience and rising against all odds. Sadly, it has not been told enough and truthfully, every South African deserves to hear this story, and be inspired and learn how much of a strong people we are. 

“By choosing to keep picking myself up and striving for great things, I not only honour the opportunities that I have been blessed with but also that my example might give someone else going through a hard time, the motivation to keep on rising.” 

South African Para Athlete, Kat Swanepoel

Swanepoel, now a Paralympian, has risen like a phoenix time again when life tried to pull a fast one on her. At the age of 21, she was forced to stop playing Hockey and Squash, after being diagnosed with a progressive form of multiple sclerosis.

In 2010, at the age of 23, she was consigned to a wheelchair.

After struggling with these “earth-shattering” news, wise words from a friend motivated her to change her mindset, choose life or choose sitting at home feeling miserable for herself. She chose to rise, pursued Wheelchair Basketball and managed to get national colours in the sport. While playing Basketball, Swanepoel was introduced to Wheelchair Rugby.

“It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what motivates me to get up and keep on pushing, but a lot of it comes from realising how amazingly blessed that I am to be able to do what I do, and that that there are so many others in our country who face much harder challenges than I do but yet don’t have the “reward” that I do from competing.”

With basketball national colours in the bag and her rugby going well, her commitment to a positive outlook received another onslaught on the very night she received her SA colours for wheelchair rugby: Swanepoel underwent a procedure to have her retinas detached in both eyes, almost losing her eye at one stage. Once again, life challenging her resolve. 

But true to her spirit and “never say die” attitude, she took up swimming in 2019. Fast forward to today, and Swanepoel is one of South Africa’s most formidable para-swimmers. 

Within a short space of time she qualified for the Tokyo Paralympics in the 50-metre S4 Backstroke, just missing out on a bronze medal in her first major swimming competition by a slim half a second.

As she worked on becoming one of Mzansi’s finest swimmers, she won a gold medal at the World Para Swimming Championships in Manchester, a feat she treasures as one of her highlights.

“The biggest highlight of my sporting career has definitely been watching our flag being raised in Manchester, and singing our anthem. I had to hold back some very big tears.”

Swanepoel had also picked up Team SA’s first medal of the championships, a silver in the SB9 50m breaststroke, and taking to the water in the SM4 150m individual medley, she upped it to gold.

“World Champs in 2023 far outweighed my expectations, with two gold medals and a silver, as well as four personal best times out of five events. Not only did it give me confidence in the pool, but total trust in the process that me and my coach are in.”

After retiring from wheelchair basketball and rugby, Swanepoel took up occupational therapy, specialising in wheelchair seating and positioning. She assists clients of all ages and disabilities, and her work takes her from special needs schools to rehabilitation centres and clients’ homes.

She describes a day in her life: “The days are already hectic. I’m out of the house at 6h45 every morning, and commute about an hour to work. Work is fairly non-stop, due to patient load, and I finish at 3pm. I go to training immediately afterwards, and eventually get home most evenings at around 19h00.”

“Then I need to prepare supper and do all the “adulting” things that need to be done. The weekends are also quite packed with training or racing on Saturdays so having a day off on Sundays is very welcome. It’s a crazy, busy schedule, but I am super fortunate to do work that I love, as well as participate in the sport that I have grown to love so much.”

Now Paris awaits as she aims to book a ticket to the Paralympic Games, another opportunity to raise the South African flag and make the nation, her family and friends and herself proud. 

But what will it take for her to get to France? 

“Para-swimming qualification for Paris 2024 is quite different than with able-bodied swimming. Each country is awarded a certain number of male and female participation slots, according to our performance at World Champs. Team selection is made closer to the Games, according to how many slots were awarded, how many qualified swimmers, and what your current world rankings are. 

“In terms of qualification standards, I have swum qualifying times in four events for Paris 2024, so am eligible to participate, but all will depend on team selection. The system certainly keeps you pushing all the way. Even though I have achieved the qualifying times, I will still be doing quite a bit of local and international racing to hone my racing skills and as a measure to see where I am in terms of preparation.

“First goal for Paris is to get there and to be as fit and healthy as possible. And then my goal is to be as fast as I can possibly be, and to do SA proud.”

Asked what quote keeps her going when times get tough, Swanepoel chose: “But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” from Maya Angelou. 

Challenges still come and go but still – she rises. “I had a set back at the end of last year when I tore my rotator cuff and was out of training for a period of time but the time out of the water just made me more appreciative of being able to swim and more hungry for the hard work ahead.

“Right now I’m in a great space with my swimming mostly because I just love what I do and that makes all the hard work worth it.”


Main Photo Caption: The story of the indomitable Kat Swanepoel deserves to be told the world over, it’s a story of resilience and winning against all odds. Diagnosed with a progressive multiple sclerosis at 21, Tokyo Paralympian Swanepoel is chasing another bite at Games glory. All Photo: Supplied

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