Through uplifting love, faith and exercise, Charles Oppelt overcame the challenges of a disabling rugby injury and the battle with drugs and alcohol to reach the pinnacle of South African bodybuilding
Transformation doesn’t come much more powerful than Charles Oppelt who, over the last 21 years, has gone from a young man with a death wish to a champion of life.
Charles was 17 years old and playing hooker for Mamre Rugby Club against Rockland in the Western Cape on 23 March 2002. He dislocated his C7 vertebra when a scrum collapsed – a crushing injury that left the Grade 10 learner at Saxonsea Secondary School paralysed.
After a long, arduous year at Conradie Hospital, he was able to return to school and matriculated in 2005, a phenomenal feat for a teenager who’d endured such a devastating tragedy. However, like slow poison, depression quietly crept in. He hit rock bottom six years after his injury.
“I didn’t realise I was going into depression and turned to drugs to comfort me,” says Charles. “I was in a dark place, full of hate, and didn’t know if I was coming or going. I gave up on life … I wanted it to end, and I became an alcoholic.”
The life-changing lift he desperately needed came from the very people who gave him life.
“I put my parents through so much pain, suffering and hardship and the realisation one day of how they stayed strong through it all and dedicated their lives to make mine the best it could be was the turning point for me,” Charles recalls.
With that mental shift, he committed himself to going to a support group for drug addicts, completed rehabilitation and turned to the thing he loves most, sport.
“A friend of mine introduced me to wheelchair rugby in 2016 and I’ll never forget the day I got into that sports chair for the first time. It felt like the weight of Table Mountain had been lifted off my shoulders,” he notes.
A reinvigorated Charles started playing for Maties and went on to represent Western Province and form part of the South African squad. He says: “The best part of wheelchair rugby is being part of a team of people who understand the daily challenges you face and how, through the sport, we help each other become the best version of ourselves.”
His new-found positivity and passion saw the once self-destructive Charles become health conscience and fall in love with exercising.
“I train with Rob Evans at the Enable Center, where I do strength and endurance training, transfers in and out of the chair, plus standing and walking,” he explained.
He got into bodybuilding through Marco Pietrowski – a former professional bodybuilder who became a wheelchair user after a car accident. Charles put long hours into his training and saw it pay off when he won the wheelchair category at last year’s national championships in Randburg, Johannesburg.
“That moment on stage when I was crowned champion was priceless. I was overcome with emotion as I thought back to everything I’d gone through, and I’d overcome.”
Faith, he says, has been the driving force of his success: “Faith is my train to my next station. As you believe, so it shall be.”
He adds that the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund has been an invaluable part of his journey. “The Players’ Fund has helped me tremendously over the last 21 years,” Charles says. “They’ve provided me with a wheelchair and other equipment, made my day-to-day life easier by making my house wheelchair accessible and supply me with tickets to go watch live rugby matches. I’m forever thankful for their support.”
Going from strength to strength in his bodybuilding career, he proudly flew the South African flag at this year’s Arnold Classic Africa in Roodepoort, where he secured a silver medal.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” he says of his medal-winning moment. “I trained years to achieve it, giving my blood, sweat and tears. Before I got my car, I took four busses, two taxis and an Uber to get to practice and now, through perseverance and the grace of God, I’m the second-best wheelchair bodybuilder in Africa.”
The 38-year-old is thriving in all aspects of life. He’s a motivational speaker, busy writing a memoir that’s set to be published in December, studying office administration at West Coast College and got engaged to the love of his life on the plane heading to the Arnold Classic, all of which, he says, sprouted from rediscovering a positive outlook on life.
“I’m a product of hard work and the belief that, against all odds, life is meant for all of us to enjoy and to do our best in. There’s always hope. Always! For any person with or without a disability going through tough times. Don’t give up and don’t let anyone label you. You are worthy and wonderfully made in the image of God.”