The grit that made Nengah great
She wasn’t just the smallest person in the group; the petite Indonesian power lifter was clearly the most fragile.
There wouldn’t have been a man under 100 kilos among the early morning crowd of sports fanatics. Most were well wrapped in heavy jackets stamping their feet against the cold sweeping the open ground where young runners were preparing for a major contest.
It was a blustery Sunday in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, and athlete Ni Nengah Widiasih was shivering in her thin red and white nylon top.
At the time she was 22 and from memory weighed 39 kilos. She didn’t complain, just laughed and windmilled her arms. Foot stamping was out.
Suddenly her single crutch slipped on the wet grass and she tumbled onto the touchline. The men rushed to assist but she waved them away.
Awkwardly and slowly she struggled upright, recovered her stick and her dignity while the embarrassed onlookers wrestled with their consciences.
Big fit blokes ignoring a distressed maiden’s plight - whatever happened to chivalry? But what could we do when the victim was so intent on being independent?
That minor incident showed the measure of the woman who is now the nation’s champion having won Indonesia’s only medal at the Paralympics. To get her bronze she lifted 95 kilos – that’s more than twice her bodyweight, or to put it simply, five full water-cooler bottles.
For the new hero of the Republic has the DIY (Do It Yourself) spirit and the qualities New Zealanders admire – grit and resolve. She’s a poet (this lady is multi-talented) and embodies the lyrics of the old Nat King Cole song Pick Yourself Up:
Don't lose your confidence / If you slip / Be grateful for a pleasant trip And pick yourself up / Dust yourself off / And start all over again.
Since 1893 when NZ became the first country in the world to give all adults the vote regardless of gender women have asserted their rights for equality in every branch of society, government, business, the professions, the military and sport.
Former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark, who spends her holidays tramping mountains, is a contender for Secretary General of the United Nations, the top job in the world body.
The Balinese weightlifter’s determination to be mistress of her own destiny made her an honorary Kiwi, adding to her glittering collection of medals from contests around the world.
Nengah believes she contracted polio as a four-year-old in the isolated Balinese village of Karangasem through a doctor’s dirty syringe. She was so badly crippled she could only crawl. She seemed doomed to live out a short life in poverty and pain, illiterate, unemployable, a burden on her family, getting no government help.
Everything changed when she met Latra from the Yakkum Foundation rehabilitation center on a quest to discover handicapped people who needed help.
Nengah was sent to Yakkum in Yogya, got callipers, had an operation to help correct her twisted leg and spent two months in hospital. After physiotherapy she returned home, started school and took up power lifting, a sport her brother I Gede Suanta had also entered.
Yakkum was started in 1982 by the late Colin McLennan a visitor from Wellington appalled by the sight of handicapped children working as beggars – something he’d never seen in his homeland.
The Indonesian non-government organization partnered with another NGO, the NZ Rehabilim Trust supported by members of the public who love Indonesia.
The Trust is chaired by businessman Bill Russell who runs a consortium of NZ tertiary institutions offering education to Indonesians. He invited Nengah to visit and see world-class facilities for the disabled, including purpose-built classrooms, special sports grounds and horse riding for the disabled.
The results of that government care are shown in the Rio statistics: NZ (population 4.5 million) sent 203 athletes to the main games and 28 to the Paralympics. They won four gold, nine silver and five bronze in the Olympics, and in the Paralympics nine gold, 5 silver and seven bronze medals.
Indonesia (population 240 million) fielded 28 sports stars to the Olympics where it collected one gold and two silver, all in badminton.
Nine athletes attended the Paralympics where the only medal was won by Nengah. She also gained a Rp 1 billion (US $76,400) purse from President Joko Widodo for making the nation proud. She will also get a monthly allowance of Rp 10 million (US$ 764).
Nengah has told friends she’ll use the money to help her family have a better life. It’s a most justified reward, but raises the question:
If government thank-you funds can be found after athletes have climbed the peak alone, imagine the medal tally if serious support is given when their skills are just emerging.
Logically there must be thousands of talented Indonesians with the potential to compete joyfully and honorably against the global superstars. As the world’s fourth most populous nation Indonesia could be giving China and the US a fright on the field and in the pool.
Right now in villages across the archipelago like Karangasem, little kids with limitless faith in their abilities are dashing down roads, splashing across rivers, leaping fences and throwing balls. To rise above the rest they need coaches and facilities.
A 2014 report by the Demographic Institute at the University of Indonesia estimated that between ten and 15 per cent of the population is handicapped. Among those citizens must be millions wanting to excel whatever their chosen field.
Will the government provide the chance? Opportunities like those given by Yakkum to Nengah – now setting her hopes on another medal at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 October 2016)