Martial ARTIST

Before his injury, Dieter Marzinger trained the army’s Special Forces troops how to kill with their bare hands. Now, he markets his 10-Second Self-Defence-for-Women DVD and creates fine art oil paintings with his mouth.

“As a kid I remember being naughty,” says Dieter, “A bit of a schemer…” But he also remembers an abusive, violent father, a battered mother and traumatised brother. So it’s no surprise to learn that his childhood took place mostly in boarding schools from age 8, his teens at Boys Town, and his coming of age during national service in the SANDF.

After the army he became a martial arts instructor after taking up the sport in Boys Town. He opened a martial arts club where he offered cross training – a mix of boxing, kick-boxing, judo, jujitsu and other disciplines popular in the rather barbarous practice of cage fighting. He was selected to lead the Springbok team and eventually became the Men’s Fighting Champion three years in a row. In 1996 he married his fiancée Celeste.

Johan Haywood, a highly experienced martial arts instructor befriended Dieter and began training him. Soon, Haywood recruited him to assist in the training of South African Special Forces, National Intelligence Agency and Scorpions personnel in the delicate art of unarmed combat. In between these training sessions, Dieter occasionally worked as a bouncer at night clubs. At the time he observed the early signs of an odd scalp infection that would bedevil him later.

Head first
On a stifling-hot Sunday in May 2002, somewhere near Phalaborwa, Dieter and his band of Special Forces men were relaxing before their training sessions began the next day. They were having a braai on a game-viewing houseboat while it puttered along the Olifants river. Seasoned spearfisher Dieter claimed he could breath-hold for 4 ½ minutes. To cool off in the sweltering heat, Dieter took a running dive head first over the railing into the brown water – He didn’t see the sand bank half a metre below the surface.

Only when he floated up two minutes later, face down and with a cloud of bloody water around his head from biting his tongue, did his comrades realise he was in trouble. Dieter blacked out for only a second after impact. He thought he had landed on a hippo or a croc. It felt like he had a lightning storm in his head. He couldn’t move. He remembers holding his breath for ages until he heard a hippo come splashing towards him. But it was his mates. The men all had basic medic training and knew about neck injuries. They log-rolled him face-up so he could breathe.

What followed was a nightmare of waiting, travelling, waiting and wondering. He eventually ended up in ICU in a Pretoria hospital drugged to the gills with painkillers. During his time under sedation in ICU he was terrorised by the hallucination of a sniper hiding in the ceiling above him. Once he was lucid, a surgeon told him he had severed his spinal cord at C4/5 and was paralysed from the shoulders down. He was 30 years old and he would never use his arms and legs again. The news was devastating, but something, an instinct, stopped him from giving up on life.

The first two years of disability were the worst. He had no income. Celeste had to get a job, and to compound his suffering, his scalp infection was spreading. The only place on his body where he could feel anything was a mass of itching and painful subcutaneous boils that threatened to drive him insane. Countless times he considered driving his power wheelchair into the swimming pool of the house that he shared with Celeste.

His doctors were baffled. One surgeon even trawled the internet to find out how wild west red Indians “scalped” their pale-faced frontier victims. That’s basically the method Dieter’s surgeon used to “cure” his infection, removing his scalp in three separate operations.

Dieter has had to develop some fascinating approaches to dealing with pain and discomfort, especially itches. “Did you know that an itch is one of the most painful, infuriating sensations, even worse than actual pain?” says Dieter philosophically. His remedy is to talk to an itch, make it feel small, insignificant, a midget. There isn’t always someone around to scratch, and getting that person to scratch the right spot is a challenge that can take an excruciatingly long time, and is even more infuriating. “But, once the pain has gone, your brain starts functioning again. Your philosophies become stronger.”

Sometimes his determination has gotten the better of him. In his striving for independence, he has pushed himself, and his electric wheelchair too far, He’s had at least 7 wheelchair accidents, falling backward, forward, sideways. The result is always pain because he cannot use his arms to break his fall. Dieter’s poor abused head usually does that!

After trying his hand at a few business endeavours, Dieter took up mouth drawing and painting. “Painting helped a lot,” says Dieter. “I bought every book I could find on technique, depth perception, colour and anatomy. I got other artists to crit my work.” To date he has had three exhibitions and sold 30 of his paintings, and he’s also been commissioned to produce specific works for some clients. But the work load has taken its toll. In his own words he admits to ‘pushing the envelope’. A year ago Dieter developed a pressure sore on his butt, caused by sitting upright too long, which deprived the skin and muscle cells with blood flow, oxygen and nutrients. (See Dr Rob Campbell’s column in this issue.)

Few hours of sitting
The dead skin and muscle tissue of the sore had to be cut out to prevent infection and gangrene. And the long process of scar tissue healing had to begin, meaning Dieter would have to lie flat for months on end in order to be allowed only a few hours of sitting at any time.

After a while, Dieter realised that his wife Celeste was battling to come to terms with his disability. She had stuck by him through his injury, two years of difficult adjustment, and his scalp infection. But he could see it was now crushing her. “I felt I was a burden on her. When you’re in my position, you are kind of dependant on people…” says Dieter. So they separated. He took some time to think about it objectively, and then made up his mind. He began proceedings to divorce her. “The divorce was my decision, my idea, and I’m convinced the decision was right.” And he was right. “Since the divorce became final in November last year, she has blossomed…” says a clearly emotional Dieter.

“It has been a lesson in discipline,” says Dieter grimly. He moved into his new house 14 months ago, and has been flat on his back for most of the last twelve months. He misses his painting, but he’s determined to get back to it, and knows it could be another year before he can. “But I know exactly what I want to do. There are about 20 paintings in my head so far.”

Dieter’s Mom lives reasonably close by in Piet Retief, his brother René lives in Sidney, Australia. Dieter has started studying web design and web management, so that he can run his own web business, his way, one day. His most ambitious project is his 10-Second self defence DVD and website, aimed at empowering women to defend themselves with tenacity during the first ten seconds of any violent confrontation. If ever there was a perfectly pragmatic attitude to life, Dieter’s attitude is it. Visit Dieter’s website at

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