A near-death experience after contracting a virulent strain of malaria in Sierra Leone last year has not stopped former professional South African mountain-biker Rourke Croeser from taking a positive view of life.
Croeser, 27, was once an icon in SA and global mountain-biking, having been ranked in the top 20 worldwide in his time.
However he was forced to stop cycling in 2015 after receiving a four-year ban for doping. He has since experienced a tumultuous, eye-opening journey.
Over the past four years the Ballito local has served as a commercial diver, which requires him to travel to various parts of the world.
But it almost ended tragically for him last year when he contracted malaria while working in West Africa.
“I nearly died and my colleagues basically had to say goodbye to me,” Croeser told In the Bunch today.
“I think only one in every 100 people survive that type of malaria once it’s gotten to that late stage.
“After that my whole view on life changed,” he said, adding that he “struggled a lot” with post-traumatic stress disorder following the ordeal.
On his way to eventual recovery, Croeser said the doctors had to “pump my body” with as much medicine as was required to kill the virus.
“Then it was about whether you and your body can withstand that, because it is often the medication that can end up killing you.”
Despite that experience, Croeser said he would like to continue with his career in diving and make a positive contribution in the industry.
“I’ve come a long way in the industry and one day I’d like to move up further.
“I enjoy it; there’s great camaraderie between the guys. It’s very much navy-style when you’re out there on the rigs and it’s a good extreme life, which I enjoy.”
Aside from working in many areas along Africa’s coastline, Croeser said he had also worked in the North Sea off Europe, as well as in Asia.
Croeser grew up a passionate and avid cyclist from the age of eight and said the lifestyle change he was forced into some three years ago was difficult to come to terms with.
“That sudden change in life was a big adaption. It took me a long time to get used to it.
“But then when I got involved in diving I developed a really big passion for travel, meeting different cultures and experiencing a bit more of life.”
Croeser recently looked after a family as part of a programme in Thailand. He also stayed with the family and helped them rehabilitate wild animals.
Reflecting on his cycling career, Croeser said he was particularly regretful for the mistakes he made, but grateful for the lessons he learnt from his ban.
“When I was 23 I was just outside the top 20 and I was approached and told that if I want to make it into the top 20 then that is what I had to do.
“I made the decision to do it [dope] and I didn’t consult the people I needed to, like my parents, who would have probably spoken me out of it.”
He had some advice for cyclists coming up through the ranks.
“It can be done clean; you just have to have patience,” Croeser said. “You need to keep believing and push through it.
“I fully believe that if I stayed clean and kept performing like I was I would’ve made it to the top of the sport. Unfortunately I was pointed in the wrong direction.”
Croeser decided to see the silver lining following the setback. “I’m quite thankful for it because I met an incredible woman after that journey,” he said.
“She had no idea I was a professional athlete. We’ve just been going through life and trying to be better people and learning from the mistakes I’ve made in the past.”
While growing up in Empangeni in KwaZulu-Natal, Croeser was a multi-talented sportsman. He represented SA in hockey, cricket and rugby, all in one season at under-16 level.
Croeser is also an avid runner, surfer and skateboarder, but he was left to make a choice eventually between cricket and cycling, before opting for the latter.
“My parents supported me in the beginning stages. It costs a lot of money to get involved and that far into the sport. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have gotten even halfway to where I did.”
He added that SA downhill ace Greg Minnaar was a role model for him growing up, as was former Proteas cricketer Jonty Rhodes for the “way he pursued his goals”.
He said, however, that cycling was a chapter he had now put behind him. “I will never cycle competitively again. I feel that’s what I owe to the sport.
“I had my opportunity and I messed it up. I will ride again and maybe at some point I will get involved by offering advice to the young kids coming up.”