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Sun 31 May 2020 | 03:47

Ethienne Reynecke's extraordinary fall and rise

Ethienne Reynecke's extraordinary fall and rise
Sun 31 May 2020 | 03:47
Ethienne Reynecke's extraordinary fall and rise
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INTERVIEW: Liam Heagney chats to former hooker Ethienne Reynecke, who bounced back from nearly being dead on three occasions in 2018 to become a South African Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) amateur champion last March just a couple of weeks before his 38th birthday.

Reynecke is by no means the full shilling again yet. His speech can trail away when he’s tired after a busy day, his memory finding the exact word he wants to say can also let him down while his damaged hearing isn’t what he would like.

But after a horrible sequence of events where his spleen burst, a stroke caused a blood clot in his brain and then getting shot at in a shop robbery (he was also divorced around that time), he is certainly bouncing back with a vigour that should make people worried about their own particular difficulty feel more positive about life.

It was 2014 when Reynecke jacked in the rugby, his now ex-wife unwilling for him stay on at Pau following a European adventure that also included pitstops at Connacht and Saracens. The forward, who had featured for the Lions and Stormers in Super Rugby, as well as Griffons, Golden Lions, Western Province and Free State Cheetahs in the Currie Cup, then took up various forms of fighting and even toyed with the idea of becoming an MMA pro in 2016.

Ultimately, the universe didn’t have it in its plan for him to do that, yet here he is all these years later, becoming a national amateur lightweight champion despite multiple, harrowing life setbacks. To say he is chuffed would be an understatement. Then again, it has always been in is nature to fight adversity, whatever the odds. Even in the lockdown there has been no idleness, Reynecke launching a range of hand sanitiser to help South Africa more safely get through the Covid crisis that has changed the world.

Forty minutes Reynecke managed with RugbyPass over the phone from Johannesburg the other night, taking his time to tell his crazy story despite communication difficulties exacerbated by the time of day.

“I do apologise,” he said at the outset. “The speech isn’t as good in the night. If you spoke to me in the morning it would be clearer. I’m tired as well as I did wrestling training.”

Regardless of 2018’s life-altering escapades, living in South Africa was never going to be a bed of roses as an ex-rugby professional. That status just doesn’t hold the same gravitas for opening doors that it perhaps holds in other countries. “It’s always a battle. Life after pro rugby is hard, it’s not easy,” he explained.

“Even though you might be well-educated – I did a chemistry and biochemistry degree in Johannesburg and a masters in law in London, in South Africa it’s different. In London if you have got an education and have played over ten years of pro rugby you can walk into a good job, but life is different in South Africa. You have to make something out of nothing. It’s like that. You just get on with it, focus on being healthy and try to get on with life.”

His characteristic chutzpah effectively saved his life following the 2018’s triple whammy: cataclysmic near-death experiences he has shrugged off rather than wallow in self-pity. “It’s getting a lot better,” he continued. “In terms of the health that is fine but it’s hard to explain to people the devastating impact that this has taken.

“There is a disability. I had to learn to read, to speak. Communication is everything. My speaking is improving but my hearing is a problem, understanding what people say. But it’s getting better. I started training again, wrestling, MMA, playing rugby in Bermuda. It helps straiten your life.

“2018 was hard. During my rugby career I never stayed a single night in a hospital. Normally if I got an operation you’d be out the same day. In 2018, I started with a month in ICU because my spleen burst. In between going to WWE [the performance centre in Orlando he attended with Todd Clever], kick boxing and vets rugby, in between all that somewhere my spleen was burst.”

He was oblivious to the issue until January 3rd when suddenly there was blood everywhere and he couldn’t move. “Getting back from that, then I had a stroke. That was almost another month in ICU. Then I was shot at [he confronted one knife-wielding shop robber but had a gun pulled on him by a second thief]. At that time I couldn’t even speak, so I had to get people to help me. 2018 was a hard year but you get through that.”

Reynecke is still unsure why he suffered the stroke that had people at his bedside in Durban saying their goodbyes in the immediate aftermath, the belief being he wouldn’t recover because of the considerable delay between being struck down and getting to hospital for treatment. Raising stroke awareness is now something he is big into.

“I actually had a Zoom with the CEO of the World Stroke Foundation,” he said. “This guy actually had a stroke as well. The thing about a stroke is the awareness is not good enough for stroking. I always ask guys how many people do you know have got aids? They go, nobody. How many people do you know have died from malaria? They go, no-one. But how many people do you know have had a stroke? Actually, a lot.

“People think it’s normally older people who get strokes but it’s a load of young healthy people and there isn’t a lot of awareness about it. For my stroke, it was in between having a lot of stress, not sleeping enough. I have got a few theories about it. I was bitten by a spider and thought it could have been from that. I’ve done other research. I’m somebody who gets warm quite quickly. I sweat a lot, I look like a sad person on a bus in a suit, I sweat very easily.

“One of the papers I have got, people that sweat under the arms, they found that those guys tend to get strokes easier. I thought maybe it was that. Sometimes guys send me things about anti-flam. That is a big reason as well for a lot of strokes, but again you cannot say exactly.

“It could have been from the wrestling or it was too warm… the problem was when it hit me, the stroke, I knew about it but you wouldn’t have thought you had a stroke because you are too young. You never think you have a stroke. Unfortunately for me I went to have a sleep on a bed for five hours, but it was actually a semi-coma. By the time they woke me up I couldn’t speak. My daughter said there’s something wrong with me.

“They [medics] reckon for every minute that you don’t get help in ICU you lose two million neurons. That is why when I got to the ICU the left side of my brain was dead, you could say. They tested but like any stroke you can’t say exactly what it’s from.

“If it’s someone my age they don’t have any history and they test for drugs. It’s not there. Then they test for steroids. It’s not there. They see somebody and think what it could be and it’s not [what they think]. I just think it was stress and maybe not living as healthy as you should. You can’t train for as long as I had without a lot of stress. After that my diet has been a lot better… but it is what it is. It happened.”

The story goes that when he woke up from his coma he tried to get out of the hospital, thinking he had to catch a flight to Cape Town to commentate for SuperSport. The harsh reality, though, was he couldn’t talk and became reliant on his then seven-year-old daughter to finish his sentences when he did eventually find his voice, a humbling situation he is still working through.

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“The biggest message is don’t feel sorry for yourself, just get on with it. Nobody worries about you so don’t feel sorry for yourself. For me, there is a lot of adversity, especially with the stroke to go from speaking on the TV as a pundit to having to learn to speak again.

“I had been busy with a [law] case but for a year I couldn’t even speak to him [the client] because I couldn’t read any emails. I had to work through all of those things. It doesn’t help feeling sorry for yourself. If you feel sorry for yourself, you are going to die from being hungry because you have to work. There is no government fund that you can live off or anything, so you have to make a living.”

What else keeps Reynecke so positive? “It’s not in terms of religion that I have been pushing on, it’s something that you have been born with probably, a culture of just ‘get on with it’. What saved my life is that I was able to go and do wrestling again, play rugby again rather than religious.

“I don’t think people realise how important it is to be able to do your fitness and to train. It’s a good thing. If you can’t do it, that is why a lot of people get into depression. The first six to eight months you’re in a very, very, very dark hole because you’re not yourself and it’s hard to explain to people you have kind of started a new life, you’re like a new person. The person that this [stroke] happened to isn’t the same person.

“It was the hardest part of my life, what happened after the stroke. To be honest, at that time I got divorced as well. It’s hard. You don’t really have someone to help you so if you don’t help yourself no one is going to look after you.”

In time, he hopes to teach the principles of wrestling defence to rugby coaches, mentioning that a session he did in Ireland last year is something he would love to replicate in Japan. But the more regular rugby question he gets is when will he be back on TV commentating. It’s something he’d love to do, Reynecke giving thanks for the grateful financial support shown by SuperSport immediatedly following his stroke.

That comeback – if it is to happen – is a long while away yet, however. “In August it will be two years [since the stroke], on the 9th. I’m not there yet. I explain it to people like this when they ask why are you not back on TV, it sounds like you can speak okay. When it comes to two syllable words then it is hard. I’m not as quick as I used to be. I have to hustle to get some words.”

He uses the word ‘freak’ as an illustration. About a year ago he couldn’t think of it but a six-degrees-of-separation type approach sparked by his memory of a song with the phrase ‘seven seas’ had him googling everything from Annie Lennox to Marilyn Manson and on to song called Jesus Freak by another artist. “It’s an example of how I adapt when I can’t think of a word.”

Given his difficulties it begs the question as to why Reynecke risked injury by returning to the fight game, but his perspective is that sport has aided his recovery not cast further doubts over his well-being.

“There is a lot of people who ask are you worried about this in terms of your stroke and I tell them to be honest, it [MMA] is just a sport firstly.

“I don’t think people understand the sport. It’s an art. It takes years to become good at, but there is no fear. After what I have had to go through it could be a lot worse,” he said, hopeful the world will eventually reopen fully and he can take part in the MMA Amateur World Championships scheduled for Kazakhstan which he has qualified for.

“The same with other people, they go through adversities. Real life is a lot harder than sport, if you can understand what I’m saying. The last fight I had, you fight as if it is your last one. Not of fear, but you’re just glad you’re able to do this again. Other people who had the stroke that happened to me, they can’t work after it. One side of their body is stopped. I was lucky mine was only my brain.

“It’s lovely to share this [story], especially if there is any message guys can get out of it. Just always stay humble and don’t feel sorry for yourself. Just get on with it. That is my message. It’s just about getting on with life and getting healthy.

“It’s hard to say when people ask about the future. I just take it day to day because you’re not even sure when you are going to be in life, it could be your last day. Just get the best time out of it.”

By Liam Heagney, @RugbyPass

PV: 6821


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