In honor of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I want to share Malat Wei’s story. It is a truly remarkable story that is full of hope and demonstrates the power of sports.
Malat was born in South Sudan during the second civil war. At the age of three, Malat contracted polio, which left him with paralysis in his lower limbs. At the age of five, Malat and his family had to leave their home in war-torn South Sudan to seek refuge in Ethiopia. During their journey, they walked hundreds of miles, slept in the jungle and crossed dangerous rivers. Once at the refugee camp, Malat started to create a new life- one that embraced the power of sports.
What is your sports story?
My sports life started when I was in the refugee camp called (Dimma) in Ethiopia where all the South Sudanese families stayed because of the war that was going on in Sudan. The camp was full of so many tribes. The two biggest tribes were Dinka and Nuer. In order for us to get along in the camp, we had to learn each other’s languages.
I was the only “different” kid in the village, but not less. I did everything with my friends from climbing fruits trees, to going to the river to fish, to building huts, and so much more. I got along with all the kids, and I spoke both languages, which made it easier to build friendships.
One day, I was bored and I saw all my friends playing soccer with a ball made out of plastic bags and twine. They played for hours in the hot sun. In the back of my mind, I said “If I go out there and join them, what will they think?” I had all kinds of questions going on in my mind at that moment, but I stopped overthinking it and went out. I yelled at my friend to pass me the ball, and he did. I hit the soccer ball back to him really hard with my hand. He couldn’t believe what had just happened. From then on, I played soccer with my hands. For ten years, I would crawl in the dirt or mud and over rocks just to play.
Growing up in the refugee camp, I didn’t feel alienated. All the kids knew who I was because I was the only kid that was on the ground playing soccer with able-bodied kids. Soccer was the only sport all the kids played in the village. We did not have everything we needed, but we appreciated what we had. We just kept on living and hoping one day something wonderful was going to happen to us. One of my biggest dreams was to come to America, and it came true.
In 2006, I came to America with my family not knowing any English. We struggled learning it, but eventually we wrapped our heads around it. Now, we speak and write it. In 2008, I started to hang out with some of the kids in my apartment complex and going to the park. At that time I had a big hospital chair with one broken leg rest. I started playing basketball with the kids at the park, and they kept telling me I should play wheelchair basketball. I told them that I didn’t know anything about wheelchair sports. One of my friends told me to go look it up on the internet. I did not have a computer or know how to use one. So I went to church one Sunday and asked my church friends if they knew anything about wheelchair sports. They said, “No.” But, they agreed to search online about it for me. The next Sunday, they told me that they had found a center near where I lived. It was about a 30 minute drive.
On Monday, one of my friends picked me up and we drove me to the center. I was very exited. I couldn’t wait! When we got there, I met Peggy Turner who welcomed me with open arms. I still remember everything like it was yesterday. She showed me pictures of all kinds of wheelchair sports on the wall. There were pictures of wheelchair basketball, wheelchair track, wheelchair ruby, and so much more.
Then, she saved the best for last! We headed down the hall to where the action was going down. Before we even got in the gym, I could hear the wheelchairs banging and the players yelling. Peggy opened the door, and I rolled in with my big hospital chair. All the players stopped playing and greeted me. They couldn’t believe the chair I was sitting in. My chair was heavy and very wide. Their wheelchairs were light and fitted. One player let me try his sports chair. When I got in it, I couldn’t stop pushing around the gym. The wheelchair was very light and fast. I had speed, but I didn’t know how to pick up the ball from the ground. One of the players leaned over and showed me how to pick up the ball. I practiced picking the ball up several times until it was easy. That day, I knew this was where I belonged.
What sports accomplishments are you most proud of?
I am mostly proud of helping my team bring the first National Championship to Houston, Texas. It was the first championship since the program started.
I am also proud of being selected to try out for the Under 23 USA National Team. Not too many players in the country get selected, but I ended up on the wood floor with the future Paralympic ball players. It was such an honor to wear those three letters on my chest. Hopefully, one day I will wear them again on the big stage to represent the greatest country on the planet, USA, and my home-country of South Sudan.
What is your training schedule?
Currently, I am playing professional wheelchair basketball in France. On Mondays, I shoot around for 2 hours and later do cardio. On Tuesdays, I shoot around in the afternoon and then practice with the team in the evenings for two hours. On Thursdays, I shoot around and lift weights. I practice with the team on Fridays and have games on Saturdays.
What is on your playlist when you are working out?
I have all kinds of music on my phone, but I don’t listen to it most of the time. Instead, I listen to motivational speakers like Eric Thomas, Les Brown, and Tony Robbins. I like to feed my brain with positive words.
What books inspire you?
I love to read. I have read many inspiring books. Some of my favorites are: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, The Power Of Thinking Positive by Normal Vincent Peale, Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, and of course, The Bible.
What’s your mantra that keeps you going on tough workouts or bad days?
What keeps me going in life is my family. My family is everything. They are my weakness and my strength. Next is my country of South Sudan. There are so many disabled kids and wounded warriors there who are struggling to live each day. They are not enjoying life and playing sports like I am doing. I think is my responsibility to return to them and help them out. Lastly, all the people who are doubting me. I will prove them wrong.
How do you define ability?
I think we all have an ability to be something in this world. It’s up to you to bring it out. When you find it, nothing can stop you whether it is in sports or life. Before we came out of our mother’s womb, we have the ability to be someone. But this world is full of people who want to bring us down and that is why it takes so long to become who we are meant to be.
How do you define grit?
Grit is something inside you that keeps you going, no matter what. Grit is when you tell yourself, “I can. Instead of, I can’t.” Basically, it is not giving up on your goal. William Hernandez is one of the grittiest individuals I know. When Willie was a college student, he had a vision to change the way the sport chair and everyday chair look. As an engineering student at UTA, he started Per4Max wheelchair Company where he designed these chairs and built them. In the first year, the company sold one chair. But, he never gave up because his “WHY” was bigger than him. He saw the vision clearly. His dream was to change the lives of people in the wheelchair community, and he finally made it happen with his partners. When you know your “WHY,” nothing can stop you.
What superpowers do you possess?
When you are having a bad day and you come around me, you will have a positive day! Ha!Ha! I think that is my superpower!
What advice do you have for other athletes?
Always have a positive attitude around your teammates. A positive attitude will get you wherever you want to go in life, and not just in sports. Try all kinds of sports. If you don’t feel comfortable with that particular sport, then move on to the next one. Keep going until you find the sport that suits you best. Then, inspire other people to be positive and to be themselves. Appreciate every single moment in life. When people are doubting you, just handle the pressure like a diamond and shine on. Finally, don’t be amazed… be amazing and have lots of fun!
Who would you like to thank?
First of all, I would like to thank my mother who brought me and my four siblings to the land of opportunity to escape the war zone. I would not have made it to America without her. I put God first, but my mother is the next in line. That’s how much respect I have for her. I would also like to thank all the people who have supported me from the first day I landed in Houston. I would really like to thank my friends in the sports world who have helped me to develop my game.
Any other additional comments you want to share?
Yes, let’s make the world a better place for everyone. Let’s create a place where we all care about one another and treat each other with equality, respect and love.