Zach Rauch Legward is ten. He’ll turn 11 in June. Despite his young age, he has already been cycling for nearly four years. At the age of seven, Zach asked his father, Geoff, if he could ride a bike, after seeing his peers pedalling away on their bikes.
But Zach was not like his peers. When he was born, via C-section, his intestines were punctured and displaced. He developed gangrene in the stomach, which transferred to his spine. Little Zach endured six surgeries, spending more than five months in neonatal ICU, at a cost of about R1 million. Once discharged, he could no longer use his legs.
In response to Zach’s plea, his dad did an internet search and found that a hand cycle would cost anywhere between R30 000 and R40 000, and so he decided to build one himself.
“Long story short,” says Geoff, “I bought two BMX bikes. I made Zach’s first bike, which was steel and weighed about 24 kg. At the time, we couldn’t find any kids’ cycling events in Africa – not even fun rides. What we now know is that Zach is definitely the youngest hand cyclist in Africa. We suspect he is possibly the youngest competitive hand cyclist globally.”
Once the cycle was built, they took it for a test ride in Sea Point. There, they met fellow hand cyclist and paraplegic Andrew Stodel, and persuaded him to let Zach ride with him – and the pair soon become friends.
“I would say Andrew is Zach’s idol. Andrew has always been very supportive and, in fact, is the reason why Zach competes in races,” says Geoff.
As Zach grew older, he outgrew his adapted BMX but a new, teen-size hand cycle would cost the Legward family R100 000. And so once again, Geoff used his ingenuity – he and family friend Jason van der Merwe took an aluminium welding course.
“Zach’s current bike weighs 15,2 kg and is aluminium. It took Jason and myself five months to build it in my garage – with a lot of swearing, burns, bruises and bumps,” says Geoff.
All the sweat and labour was worth it: Zach continues to build his career as a young champion hand cyclist. The young wheelchair user has participated in the Outeniqua Wheelchair Challenge (OCC) race several times, taking part for the first time at the age of seven. In 2018, he won gold, shaving 11 minutes off of his personal best.
“Not only did he win his class, but he was the first person over the line in the 10-kilometre race and was three minutes in front of everyone,” says Geoff with justifiable pride.
Zach also showcased his talents at the 2016 Gun Run fun ride, where he won gold after completing the 10-kilometre race in 47 minutes. Geoff recalls: “He was as sick as a dog the night before with gastro and vomiting. I told him he couldn’t race. There were tears, and dad capitulated and let him race.”
Zach competed in the 2017 Nedbank Junior National Championships, even though he was too young to be considered for colours, and completed the 2017 Knysna Cycle Tour of 50 km.
“Although we helped him on the steep uphill climbs, this is probably his best achievement, as he has never spent that much time on the bike,” Geoff says.
The big fish the family hopes to catch is the Cape Town Cycle Tour of 109 km. Geoff explains: “We have been told that Cape Town Cycle Tour in 2019 might possibly have a 50 km race for juniors. Either way, Zach will participate in the event, which will be the first time it has ever been done by a kid in a hand cycle.”
Zach also had the wonderful opportunity to attend the World Championship in Pietermaritzburg in 2017. Although he was lapped by the other athletes, he rubbed shoulders with the best international para athletes and received numerous invites to train internationally. Zach was the only young para athlete who attended the Championship.
According to Geoff, Zach is starting to understand the concept of the Paralympics and the possibility of earning a living from cycling.
“He knows Ernst van Dyk [the famous South Africa para athlete] well. In fact, he knows most of the top 10 South African para cyclists, as we race with them all the time,” Geoff says.
Zach trains twice a week with his coach Shawn Weber and participates in as many fun races as possible. This is more challenging than it sounds, considering Zach’s busy schedule. He is still very much a young boy eager to play console games on his Xbox and spend money on Lego and other fun stuff. He loves swimming, scuba diving, archery, shooting air rifles, quad biking, drone flying and fishing, and participates in basketball and javelin at school.
“Cycling gives Zach the freedom to get out on the road. He says that it allows him to get rid of frustration and pent-up energy,” Geoff says.
“When he was born I had no idea of the issues surrounding disability in South Africa. After 11 years, I’ve learned a lot. I’m shocked at the state of wheelchairs, bicycles and other assistive devices as well as the massive rip-off in the supply of these in South Africa. Having said that, though, when I realised Zach had a disability, I refused to allow him to just sit in a corner.
“I have always taught him that nothing is impossible and, to be honest, we have modified or adapted everything from motor bikes to water skis to allow him to participate. I think the mindset has definitely sunk in and he is an incredibly positive little guy. He never gets out of bed in a bad mood – even when he’s sick. I think living with him has certainly grounded me. We often see other children with disabilities at his school facing far worse challenges and it makes me realise how lucky I am to have him.”
Best keep an eye on this young, inspirational para cyclist who might soon be a Paralympian! Good luck with your races this year, Zach.