Q&A with Catherine van Staden

Emma McKinney
By Emma McKinney
4 Min Read

We sat down with Catherine van Staden, who has a degenerative disease, and chatted about how sport has changed her life

Adegenerative condition known as Hereditary Spastic Paralysis (HSP) causes a person to slowly lose the functionality in their limbs. Catherine has this condition in her legs. She has not allowed it to interfere with her great passion – sport!

What was one of the toughest things about having HSP?

Over time, my legs will become weaker and my balance worse until I lose all function in my legs and I end up relying on a wheelchair full-time. Becoming a wheelchair user was one of my biggest fears in life. I was worried that I would become useless, unable to be included in society and employment.

I was concerned that I would lose my independence. While I wasn’t afraid of not being able to walk any more, I was afraid that society would exclude and forget about me. It was only after reading a book about a climber who was blind and starting working in the disability field that I started changing the view I had of myself and my deteriorating condition.

How have you coped with the possibility of becoming a full-time wheelchair user?

In 2012, I began dreaming about taking up sports and finding ways to use my disability to my advantage. I first pursued swimming, after which I discovered triathlon. Instead of using my legs, I only use my arms to swim, pedal my hand cycle and push my racing wheelchair in the running section of the triathlon.

What is the biggest challenge of participating in triathlons as a wheelchair user?

Doing triathlons with only arm power for the swim, the cycle and the run takes triathlons to a whole new level. I am currently the first and only TT1 female officially classified (hand cycle/wheelchair classification) para triathlete in South Africa. Since 2012, I have completed in numerous races including the Midmar Mile swimming race, South African Disability Sports Championships (swimming 800 m and 50 m) and ten kilometre-and half-marathons throughout Cape Town.

My passion remains competing in triathlons. I have finished many South African races including the Slanghoek Triathlon, 5i50 Triathlon Bela Bela, 5i50 Triathlon Germiston Lake, Durbanville Triathlon, Ultra Sun City Triathlon, Cape Ultra Triathlon and the Jailbreak Triathlon. I have been privileged to complete the Africa Para triathlon Championships, ITU Elite Para triathlon, Discovery World Triathlon Cape Town and the New York City Triathlon, as well as the Ironman triathlon in Australia.

What does the triathlon include?

The triathlon for people with disabilities is called a Para triathlon and, for my disability category, it consists of the following: a 750-m swim; 20-km bike (hand cycle); and five-kilometre run (wheelchair).

What message do you hope to spread through your involvement in sport?

I am passionate about competing in sports as well as motivating other people who might be struggling to cope with or accept their own disability. I want to increase awareness around sport and disability, especially females with disabilities.


Dr Emma McKinney is a “children with disabilities” specialist, a post doctoral fellow at Stellenbosch University and owns a company called Disability Included. email: emma@disabilityincluded.co.za

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Emma McKinney
By Emma McKinney Children with Disabilities Specialist
Dr Emma McKinney is a “children with disabilities” specialist, a post doctoral fellow at Stellenbosch University and owns a company called Disability Included.
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