You’ve probably heard the name Dan Skinstad before. He’s got cerebral palsy and kayaked through Iceland a few months ago. That’s not the last you’ll hear of him, though. This weekend, he’s doing a 60km stationary cycle to help raise money and awareness for charity, and it’s only the beginning of what he’s got planned. By ANT SIMS.
Dan Skinstad is at it again: he’s not quite going to wage war with ice-cold waters, but he is going to complete a 60km stationary cycle on the weekend in support of the Chase Winshaw Charity Trust, the main beneficiary of which is three-year-old Chase Winshaw. Chase suffered brain damage at birth and now has a condition known as high-tone cerebral palsy, for which he requires expensive stem cell surgery. The trust was set up to help raise money for his operation.*
“After I came back from Iceland, the big question was sort of: ‘Who benefited?’” Skinstad explains. “And nobody benefited from Iceland directly – we didn’t think about it like that at the beginning, but it was in the back of my mind that doing something a bit different might open a few more doors and give me some credibility to help give back.”
The opportunity to support a charity happened through friends, at the gym where Skinstad trains. He was asked whether Chase’s was a cause he would like to support, and he didn’t hesitate to have a crack.
His Iceland trip was initially meant to be a bootcamp; a test of his physical and mental limits and, more importantly, an experimental exercise to see if there were any improvements in his condition when he was pushed to these limits. Testing himself in this way was something that might help doctors with research, he felt.
Now, he wants to raise more widespread awareness about cerebral palsy, making sure in the process that the funds raised are invested via the right channels. Most of all, he wants to ensure that informed decisions are made when it comes to taking action.
But Skinstad adds that the awareness and the money being raised for the charity are just one side of it. A benefit he didn’t account for was the relationships that would evolve around his involvement with the Trust – the simple human connection between two people who are dealing with the same thing.
“For this charity trip, the money we’re raising and the awareness is good, but there are so many other little things that make it so special,” he says. “My mum bumped into Chase’s mum over the weekend and they got talking about bringing up three boys and one of them with cerebral palsy. That’s something extra which I can’t offer.”
Reflecting on his trip to Iceland, he admits that it was a shock to a system, but a journey he loved. And while the conditions were harsh, the natural beauty he saw on the trip more than made up for the torrid conditions.
“The Iceland adventure was a serious shock to the system,” he says in his Durban drawl. “I loved it, but I arrived in three feet of snow – which is something I’ve never seen before. Not to that extent, anyway. In a way we were almost unprepared. It’s a very harsh place, but it’s as harsh as it is beautiful.”
Kayaking in tough conditions is a remarkable feat for anybody, and while one might assume that there is a trick to surviving such a trip, Skinstad says there is no science to how he dealt with it. He just knew he had one opportunity and had to take advantage of it.
“I think it was the naïveté that saved me. When I got a bit fitter and stronger, things got better, but there wasn’t a day where I wasn’t a little bit frightened. I didn’t really have a strategy when I left, but when I left a few people told me that I’ve only got one chance. And people will not react so well if I came back and say I didn’t make it and I have to try again,” he recalls.
Skinstad says Iceland is certainly a place he would like to visit again, but not necessarily to do another adventure trip. The culture is different and without the pleasantries South Africans are used to, but the aspiring attorney says this difference was something which excited him; something he wants to experience again.
“People in Iceland come across as unfriendly when you first meet them, but that’s not the case at all,” he explains.
“It’s just the way they do things. For example, they will never say ‘We’ll see you tomorrow to help’; they just arrive. The people of Iceland are definitely doers and not talkers. Once they warm up to you, they will go to the ends of the earth for you, and it’s definitely a place I want to visit again, but not for a trip, just to visit the people I met and the friends I made there.”
While he sees himself as normal and while he has lived most of his life feeling normal, he admits that the journey he has embarked on has forced him to confront his identity and rethink the way he sees himself, something which has not been easy.
“I don’t see myself as different and my family doesn’t see me as different. This whole journey has been quite interesting, because it has reinforced that I am different, but it has allowed me to confront it,” Skinstad says.
“It hasn’t been easy, because for most of my life, I kind of pushed all of this under the carpet. I’m not sure if that is something I would change, but I’m not one to dwell on situations. The trip to Iceland, and helping Chase out, have opened by eyes quite a bit.
“We all have off days. I have an off day from time to time, but I keep telling myself that I am lucky. I’ve been well educated, I’ve got a family who loves me and I’ve got lots of friends, but I also remind myself that everybody has these off days, everybody has some kind of worry, but it’s the approach which makes the difference.
“The fuss around me and what I have achieved is something which I am still getting used to,” says Skinstad.
That Skinstad is a brave and remarkable young man, there is no doubt. Many consider him a role model – a hero, even. But he says that’s something he hasn’t quite gotten his head around yet.
“I know that people sometimes look up to me, but I do still have self-worry and self-doubt. Some days I don’t, but those are off days. Although I do like to inspire people to do great things, I’m not sure if I can see myself as an inspiration, and it’s probably because I am quite down to earth,” he says.
He knows that the line between confident and cocky is a fine one, something which he wants to balance. And while he says the adventure in Iceland has been good, he says it hasn’t cured a lifetime of anxiety and doubts.
“I just need to find that happy medium and start seeing in myself what other people see in me, but I also don’t want to cross the line where I start thinking too much of myself. Six months on a boat doesn’t cure 30 years of angst, and that’s something I need to work on.”
Future adventure is on the cards for the man who has won over the hearts of so many, but he insists that he also wants to take some time to focus on himself as a person and better his life in terms of setting the foundation to propel him forward.
“I want to get to a stage where I am more self-efficient and where I am more comfortable in my own skin. I think once I am working full-time, it will help.
“I would like to do another trip, maybe not such an intense one, but I’d love to do a trip with my family. I don’t really know what’s next, I just know that I need to start building a nest.
“I don’t know what that entails yet, but I that’s what I am working towards.” DM
* The Chase Winshaw Charity Trust was started by Sovereign Trust (SA) Limited and deVere Investments SA to provide financial help and a better quality of life for children with cerebral palsy.
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.