Heinrich Wagner is a visually impaired man, one who has brazenly performed numerous feats that would reduce most 'normal' human beings to quivering, cowering messes. Apart from participating in several endurance-testing marathons, the Capetonian has broken two land speed records, sky-dived from a height of 10,000 feet and bungee-jumped from one of the highest bridges in the world. Apart from cycling solo for 39km, Wagner has completed the 2011 ABSA Cape Epic (regarded as the Tour de France of mountain biking). Wagner took part in the Hong Kong Iron Man in 2006, completing 180km on a tandem bicycle in extreme weather conditions. He also tried his hand, successfully, at mountaineering and rafting. Oh, and he played in the 1998 blind cricket World Cup, which his side won.
DNA's Daniel Pinto spoke to this indefatigable and unvanquished individual who is also a sought-after motivational speaker and was in Mumbai last week to address a gathering of top business executives. Excerpts:
It’s natural for people to dwell on things they can’t change and attribute their failures to it. What made you different?
I was born blind. For 25 years I was cross with god, the universe. Eighteen years ago I set sail on a 28-day journey from Cape Town to Rio [de Janeiro] with two blind mates and a hearing-impaired skipper. It was there that I experienced this big, beautiful world and realised that I was so small in the universe. It was then that I decided to live a full life and stop feeling sorry for myself and blaming the world for the fact that I couldn’t see.
What made you go in for adrenaline-pumping, physically challenging sports?
It started out with me wanting to show the world, but then it came full circle after it became an option to market the abilities of differently abled people.
I founded an organisation, VisionTree, in 2004 and all the adventurous activities I tackle are to fund it. After I completed a race on a tandem, the organisation was able to put six blind girls through six months of computer training. And the adrenaline rush, of course, is probably the closest I get to the sensation of sight.
How do you deal with the concerns of family and friends about your physical well being?
I respect them very much. I care for them, which is why when I’m about to face danger, I surround myself with professionals and people in the know, like terrain experts. When I broke the land speed record for the second time (after Wagner became the first South African to break a world land speed record in 2005, he went on to break the world blind land speed record by averaging a speed of 322.5kph in 2009), I consulted a professional racer in the UK and drove a Mercedes SL65 AMG which is a safe car.
Adventure sports will always be risky. The element of risk adds to the adventure. My family has always been very supportive. When I broke the land speed record, it was two weeks before my wedding, and my wife was there at the event. So you can imagine!
When it comes to making judgments and decisions, a lot depends on visual input. What system have you developed to aid you in your endeavours?
Most of it comes from feeling. I’m good at picking things up through my senses. I’ve used my gut feeling. And, of course, I make mistakes, but that’s why I travel. If you travel across different countries and experience different cultures, it expands your point of view and your frames of reference.
How was your last visit to India?
The last time I was in your country it was for the 1998 blind cricket World Cup in Delhi. I was playing for South Africa and there was huge support from the local crowd because we were up against Pakistan in the final.
Are you a spiritual person?
Yes, very much so. I think I am guided by my spirit. I believe in my instinct. I try to be in balance with my spiritual side. I spend time thinking about where I am at and I consider my opportunities.
Tell us about your autobiographical show ‘Bat Magic’ that you perform at art festivals.
The main driving force behind the show, which started in 2003, was to show the lighter side of living in darkness. The show managed to put across humour. It was very well received and when corporate presentations came along I was able to reuse material. Incidentally, the festival we launched the in 2003 was the place where I met my wife Melindi.
As a man who has risen above circumstance, how would you define success?
To use a quote, success is a progressive realisation of a worthwhile dream. Success is a vastly individual thing. But what's important is you have to live the ideal and it will become a reality.
You have accomplished several things that are, in an understatement, astounding. What achievement are you proudest of?
Accepting that I can’t see since birth, and I’ve decided to accept things I can’t change, I’m proud of everything that I’ve achieved so far. One of the best, though, was South Africa’s victory at the blind cricket World Cup. That was amazing because teams of every cricket-playing nation took part!
But I would say my greatest adventure was marrying my wife eight years ago. Life presents many adventures if you open your mind and heart to them.