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The idea of men “giving up” struck Derrick Hill while he was on holiday in Umhlanga Rocks in 2007. Go to any beach and you’ll see men with bellies bulging over their boardshorts, bloated from years of dedication to a lifestyle of more eating and less moving. In fact, you don’t need to go to a beach to see this; you could probably just turn your head.
“Most of the men of South Africa let themselves go,” says Hill. “They’ve got stomachs bigger than pregnant women and they don’t need to be like that. They think that after 50 they can just relax on the couch and watch TV.”
This moment on the beach had a profound effect on Hill who, five years later, came second in the Masters division at the Reebok CrossFit Games in California – a remarkable achievement considering his medical history. Like Crombie, Hill had a medical condition that wasn’t the result of a negligent, sedentary lifestyle. He worked in the building industry; he hauled bags, bricks and beams around construction sites. He was a long-distance runner who also played squash and water sports. Yet his spine had been disintegrating for the past 40 years.
There’s a neurosurgeon in Linksfield West who has three decades’ worth of records documenting the deterioration of Hill’s spine. This is the same spine that orchestrated the movements in getting a silver medal competing against some of the world’s fittest men. This,
despite having a hip replacement and despite the fact that – according to the South African Medical Research Council – almost two-thirds of South African males are classified as physically inactive.
Still, Hill’s sturdy legs found their way onto the podium in Carson, California because he’s spent most of his life refusing defeat and, at times, doctor’s orders.
A few years ago, Hill’s doctor told him he needed a discectomy. Hill refused, and instead of accepting atrophy, he began strengthening his back. “I’ve been through times when it’s been really sore,” he says. “I couldn’t walk at times, but I kept on strengthening it.”
Hill returned to his doctor for another assessment. Again, the doctor advised a discectomy. Hill conceded. However, an MRI scan revealed that he was too late. “The doctor said that at that point it was so bad that if he did one disc, they would all go .” Hill was given a piece of paper outlining the life he could expect – it had instructions on how to get in and out of a wheelchair, which backrests to use when sitting and how to lift yourself up after sitting down.
“I thought: ‘Wow, this is not going to happen.’ I’d rather live for today,” he says.
So, once again, Hill got stronger. “I strengthened my back to the extent that I can do the things anybody can do. When I go to a physio now they say they’ve never seen the muscles holding that spine together like it is,” he says.
“Whenever the doctor sees me, he just shakes his head.”