Meeting Ayeton Ohn, or Ayton, is similar to running into a whirlwind – a warm happy one with optimism that is infectious. The reason: Ayton was born positive.
“People get annoyed with me, but I am just a very optimistic, positive person.” Born with Spina Bifida, Ayton emigrated from Burma, now called Myammar, in 1990 to South Africa. At the time he was 13 years old. “We lived in Mmabathu and then moved to just outside of Sun City, near Rustenburg in the North West province. I attended Grendville High School there. It was an English able-bodied school.” Ayton emphases the English speaking part. It was really tough for him at school – not because of his wheelchair, but because he did not speak English.
However, it was here that he made friends that he describes as “lifelong” and prompts him to say, “I am the way I am because of the people I have met in my life.”
One of the guys
After school Ayton studied a BSc in computer science at the University of Pretoria. Again it was tough for him. “There was the language barrier again – I could not speak Afrikaans. Apart from that, it was great. I fitted in firstly because the people around me made it easy for me. Secondly, I was in a hostel and at that time initiation was still practiced. I participated and I think this went a long way towards being seen as just one of the guys.”
Ayton has also always been very active, participating in social and sporting events. He played able-bodied tennis at high school. It was through the Sports Association, however, that he was introduced to athletics. He participated in the 100, 200 and 400 m events. “I wasn’t too bad and represented South Africa at Stoke Mandeville in the UK. I came third in the 100 m and 200 m and fourth in the 400 m, 1500 m and 1800 m. It was my first international event and a memory I still cherish.”
It was at the Stoke Mandeville games that he came into contact with wheelchair basketball. “I liked the look of it and I have always been a team player, so when I get back to South Africa I am going to play basketball.
“My father was reluctant, wanting me to focus on my education, but my mother was very enthusiastic about my involvement in sport so she bought me a sports chair.”
It was through basketball that Ayton met his role model, Kobus Oechsger. “Kobus is the best basketball player South Africa has ever had. But it is more than his elegant style of basketball playing that I admire, it is his focus and determination to do everything he undertakes to the best of his ability. He knows what he wants out of life and is not afraid to go out there and get it.”
Two beers and a dare
Ayton laughs as he continues, “I also know what I want, but I want a lot – to work, to travel, to play sport, to go to the Beijing Olympicsâ€¦ the list is forever growing.” As if to testify to this, Ayton starts talk about rock climbing, an activity he has started to take more and more seriously. “Two beers and a dare on student Spring Day and I was up a climbing wall. What was amazing, though, was that I really enjoyed it. I am light but have a strong upper body, so I am pretty suited to rock climbing.
“So far it has been a social activity and I have mainly climbed walls. Now I am starting to climb natural rock formations. My present challenge is to lead a low grade climb. Logically I know my limitations, so I am not sure where the rock climbing will go after that, as natural surface grips are a lot more difficult than indoor climbing.
“Climbing relaxes me while I build upper body strength. The challenge of climbing and then the feeling when you reach the top is not something that I can explain. It feels as if you have just conquered the world. It is akin to real life - full of challenges and a great feeling when you meet those challenges.”
Climbing is, however, a supplement to his real goal: the opportunity to represent South Africa in wheelchair basketball in Beijing next year.
And he has started training in earnest. A pre-sales systems engineer for Cisco systems, Ayton works flexi hours, which allows him to do fitness training at five in the morning. In the afternoons he does basketball training. He plays for what he calls the best basketball team in the country, the Pretoria Blade Runners.
But Ayton also admits that his dreams stretch past Beijing. “I love to travel. Travelling is part of my job so I get to do quite a bit of it. I mainly travel to the US and Europe for work. Last year I went on holiday to South America. I backpacked for five weeks. It was fantastic and I totally fell in love with the people and the language. Not that it is a wheelchair friendly continent. Not at all, and again there was the language barrierâ€¦”
Ayton had to shower as the bathroom facilities were not set up for wheelchairs. “It was amusing really, I would go shower with a raincoat to keep my wheelchair dry! The one town I went to, all the roads were cobblestones. It was terrible, and in the end I hired a goat cart to get around.”
Despite this, he says he would go back in a minute. “I want to travel the world. I wish I did not have to work so I could. One day however, I do want to pack up and travel the world – I think in the near future. But first Beijing.”