Hein Wagner throws himself into extreme adventure to boost the confidence of others living with blindness. His daring trysts have been across land, air, river and sea.
Hein Wagner, entrepreneur, global speaker and adventurer, has cycled up rocky mountains, jumped off flying planes, run on ice and negotiated Africa’s fiercest rivers.
He has successfully completed challenges such as the Absa Cape Epic, the Antarctica Marathon, the Two Oceans and New York Marathons, the Ironman and Cape Town Cycle Tour. He has also rafted down the rapids of the Zambezi River, and climbed the highest mountains of the Western Cape. Now 46, he has had more adrenaline-driven experiences than most.
And Wagner is blind.
He was born with a rare, inherited eye disorder called Leber Congenital Amaurosis resulting in vision loss at an early age. The doctors discovered it when Wagner was six months old.
When he was six years old, his parents made a tough decision – to send him away to a boarding school 100 kilometers away from home.
“It was a hard thing for me, I was just used to the family home – I could move around on my own, I could just get by on my own, I could sort myself out. My parents decided to send me away…To me, it was quite traumatic, I got lost. At home, I could find my way anywhere, the bathroom, kitchen and bedroom, it was comfortable,” says Wagner.
“As a small child, you kind of don’t understand why. Later, you realize the decision was harder for my parents to make; they had to send me away but it paid off. It was the ideal place for me to work with teachers qualified to educate blind kids, and also meet other blind children with similar challenges.”
School was a precious learning experience, but the hardest part was in his teenage years, especially on weekends.
“The sighted kids could make eye contact with people. Going into adolescent years, they made eye contact with the girls, and they could interact by just looking or just winking.”
Without that ability, says Wagner, it was like standing in the back of a queue. But he always looked for another perspective.
“It was all in your head because there’s other ways of doing it. You don’t have to see to have a successful relationship for that matter. But you feel like a misfit because of how society treats you; they think you can’t do this or do that, but that’s not true, the only thing that doesn’t work well is my eyes.”
He proved his physical prowess in every possible way.
In 1998, he was part of the Blind Cricket South Africa team that won the Blind Cricket World Cup that year.
By the time Wagner finished school, he started playing around with computers. Voice technology had just started to develop and a blind person could actually work on a computer. He was fascinated with computing and ended up working in Information Technology for 12 years, working his way up the career path. He did a number of computer courses including one stint for three years in London that equipped him well.
He managed teams in companies such as Thawte-Verisign, a tech firm founded by Mark Shuttleworth, the first African to travel to space as a tourist.
Wagner enjoyed the corporate life, and met the $50 million targets. In 2014, he quit – to pursue his passion for action beyond the boardroom.
“People wanted me to speak about my adventures because at the time I had done a few of the Cape-to-Rio yacht races.”
Wagner discovered his adventurous side as a teenager. He was up at the Table Mountain in Cape Town six times. People would never stop talking about the view and he wanted to experience it too. It was after his first hike – it took him six hours to get to the top – that he fell in love with nature.
“I felt some sense of achievement, and the other thing I realized on the way is that it was so much bigger than I imagined. You also have a sense that the top of the mountain is flat, but it’s not; it’s rocks,” he says. His view was different from everyone else’s and it was no less beautiful.
His adventurous streak led him from one exciting experience to another.
“Things got a little bit more [hectic], I did the land-speed record. The first one was in 2005. I drove a Maserati at 269.2km/hour, beating the record, which was 269km/hour. Then a Belgium blind guy drove a Lamborghini at 308km/hour. So my navigator and I went back and did 322kms/hour on a runway in Upington with a [Mercedes-Benz] AMG 65 black. The record still stands,” he says.
Wagner also jumped off Victoria Falls, a 111-meter jump. He went into it without knowing how long the jump would be nor knowing what he was jumping towards.
“I got on to the bridge, met the guys and let the guys put stuff around my ankle. You can see the loop going up and down, but I don’t have that luxury. I had to trust them immediately. When you are blind, you have to shift your trust all the time, because you rely on people many times when you actually don’t know them. You observe and learn to trust quicker,” he says.
The reason Wagner is always hurling himself into extreme adventure, he says, is to lift the profile of people living with blindness. It is to push the boundaries and see how far the human spirit can go, but to also inspire.
“I’m blind, what’s your excuse,” he says.
Today, Wagner is a motivational speaker. People, companies and sports clubs were keen to hear him talk about his life.
“I realized people enjoy my sense of humor, the things I talk about. They started offering me money. I realized there may be an opportunity in this. Today, I have been running a successful business for the last 14 years, and speak all over the world.”
However, he had a rough start; the first three years were difficult. He had just quit and had no budget for marketing. He relied on presentations. His first talks were at schools, simply because young learners were brutally honest when it came to feedback.
Step by step, he grew, investing time and energy in his business. Besides South Africa, Wagner also speaks overseas.
Beyond his daring trysts across land, air, river and sea, Wagner’s greatest achievement is he accepted his condition, turning adversity into opportunity.
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