Damaris Helwig studied photography at the Tshwane University of Technology and spent her final year focusing on a wheelchair basketball team.Gelukspan is a little place in the middle of nowhere, roughly 50 km outside of Mafikeng, in the North West Province. It is situated in a very flat area, where it seems like the hills are hiding behind the horizon. Here, where small villages appear out of nowhere and donkey carriages are a common method of transport, lies the Gelukspan District Hospital.
At the back of the hospital there is what looks like a tennis court, but on closer inspection is a basketball court. Next to it is a small garage, with a huge Mongoose painted on its wall. That is the mascot of the Gelukspan Wheelchair Basketball Team.
The team was founded in 1997 by Undine Rauter, a physiotherapist, and Tebogo Gaanakgomo, a paraplegic at the hospital. They started the team with only the scholars from a nearby school for physically disabled learners and some adults living in the surrounding area. Picture: The GBT have a team talk before a game, Gelukspan, March 2006.
Through hard work and dedication the players now take part in the four-province Central Conference League and the Annual National Junior Championship for the Physically Disabled. The team has ranked amongst the top three during the last four years, with the North West Province boys team (most are from Gelukspan) winning two gold medals.
These days they also have a very good girls’ team with four players from Gelukspan invited to join the National Women Development Team. Selected players also play in Super Sports Teams. Some boys are just about to leave for Belgium with the National U/23 boys team and one is now selected into the Senior National Team. Picture: The coach explains something to the team during practice, Gelukspan, August 2006.
In my third year of studies I was given an assignment to photograph a famous person. I chose to photograph Oscar Pistorius. This assignment made me realise that there is another aspect to sports. Through the photograph I took of him, I realised that many people did not know there are different sports available for physically disabled people.
I chose to focus the whole of my final year on photographing a disability sport. I had no trouble finding a sport that interested me, as Undine Rauter, the manager of The Gelukspan Wheelchair Basketball Team is a family friend. This presented me with the opportunity of combining two fields in photography, sport and documentary.
I was able to photograph the team during training and games, as well as photographing intimate moments. I even photographed the coach in his home near Gelukspan. Picture: Gift Mooketsi practising to throw the ball, Gelukspan, March 2006.
In the beginning I felt uncomfortable as the team members all knew each other, and all of them had the one thing in common: the ability to play wheelchair basketball. I stood around holding my camera, looking very lost. Later on, I was no longer seen as a photographer but as a part of the team.
The week I was in Gelukspan I met Gift Mooketsi, a talented player. He told me that a normal person is the same as a disabled person, just the movement is different; mentally they are the same. From that point on I no longer felt lost. I was able to speak to the players as individuals. When the boys’ team played at the Junior National Championships for the Physically Disabled in Bloemfontein, the girls and I would sit around, cheering for the boys and we would talk about girls’ stuff. I was even invited to join their team talk during the breaks and listen to the coach discussing their strategies.
Team spirit plays a big role in the GBT Mongoose as it lifts the players during disappointing games, and also helps them through financial difficulties, which are a constant burden.
I want to thank the Gelukspan Wheelchair Basketball Team for the opportunity to photograph them, but also for opening my eyes to accept each and every one as an individual, and that hard work, patience and determination can make things happen. The information about the history and achievements of the team was supplied by Undine Rauter.