Dan Meyer’s bicycle was playing up, and steadily getting worse. If he’d been at home in Cape Town, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But he was alone in a deserted area of the US with 50km and a mountain range between him and the nearest repair shop.

“The elevation killed my legs, my bike, and my will to live. Finally at 4.15pm, I made it to the ‘bike shop’ which looked like it hadn’t been open in years. There were cobwebs on the door,” Meyer posted on Facebook.

“So I tried to fix the bike myself and made it so much worse. Now it doesn’t ride at all. I’m stranded in the middle of nowhere, California, with no bike. Shit.”

The good news is that the 40-year-old businessman solved the problem and completed his 3,000km ride from border to border down the west coast of the US earlier this year. Overcoming obstacles is what endurance athletes do.

Overcoming obstacles

The same can be said of children who are born with cleft lips and palates, which explains the strong bond between them and Dan. He and four other endurance athletes from South Africa  have raised more than R1m in the past year for Operation Smile. As a result, we’ve helped 110 children with cleft conditions, mainly from rural communities in Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape.

“We delivered two surgical programmes in each province to enable patients to receive safe cleft surgery,” said Sarah Scarth, executive director of Operation Smile South Africa.

“In addition, we deployed 40 volunteers – cleft surgeons, anaesthetists, paediatricians and nurses – to serve on Operation Smile surgical programmes across Africa, benefiting a further 757 patients with clefts.”

Richard Kohler

Another of the athletes who supported Operation Smile is Richard Kohler. In February 2023, he became the first solo kayaker to paddle 7,000km from Cape Town to Salvador, Brazil.

“We raised over half a million rand, ensuring that more than 100 children will receive corrective cleft surgery,” he said.

Before starting his voyage, Richard joined an Operation Smile mission in Mpumalanga.

“I stood next to the surgeons while they were operating,” he says. “The passion I saw there was what kept me going while I was paddling. And I loved the instant gratification of what Operation Smile does – it changes children’s lives almost immediately.”

Bob Bolus, who marked his 65th birthday by walking 500km from Mossel Bay to Pringle Bay last October and November, also found deeper meaning in his exploit.

“We are all destined to create our own legacy,” he said. “There are children born every day with a cleft lip and palate.

I have chosen to change these children’s lives to enable them to live in a happy and dignified way … and to smile. I smile a lot, and people smile back. Smiling people are happy people.”

Meyer and Kohler are quick to mention David Grier as the man who inspired them, not only to tackle difficult challenges but to raise money for Operation Smile along the way.

David Grier

After their latest adventure – a 1,500km run along the coastline of Portugal and Madeira in June and July – Grier and his running partner Andrew Stuart, along with the other athletes, were honoured at a cocktail event in Cape Town on 24 August.

All five athletes spoke about why they tackled their epic solo challenges, how they got through them, what they learnt and what their efforts tell us about the resilience, determination and never-give-up attitude of South Africans.

Since 2006, Operation Smile South Africa has been a driving force in delivering safe cleft surgery and it has built up a volunteer network of 126 specialists who will give their time and expertise during three surgical programmes in the next year.

Surgical Mission

Grier, 63, says it’s the memories from surgical missions that have sustained him on his runs, which have taken him about 30,000km through China, Madagascar, India, Cuba, Thailand and North Korea.

“When I’m out there and I’m struggling to take the next step, I just think of what that next step means, how it’s going to change a life. It’s a big driver for me,” he says.

“I’ve had the privilege of going on a surgical mission, meeting a child before surgery, seeing it come out of theatre, meeting the parents, then seeing that child unleashed back into life. I’ve also seen the effects on families who have been ostracised and pulled apart because of how their child looks.

“That’s why Operation Smile has been so important in my life, and such a worthwhile and worthy cause to support.”

Join us

Interested in tackling your own adventure to raise funds for Operation Smile? Please visit our Fundraiser page to set up an easy-to-support donation system.

More of a couch potato? You can still support our surgical programme by making a donation online.

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