London - Schalk Burger’s fightback from a life-threatening illness to once again play a key role for the Springboks is one of the most inspirational sporting stories of the year and makes him a strong contender for nomination for the 2015 Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award.
Burger fought through injuries and life-threatening meningitis to return to the Springboks team in 2014. He had a cyst next to his spinal cord and went into hospital for treatment, but developed bacterial meningitis and was moved to intensive care.
“There was a critical stage for nearly five days in which there was a lot of uncertainty. I was in isolation and I was seriously ill, so ill in fact that some people around me thought ‘this is it’,” said Burger.
His parents were called to the hospital to say ‘goodbye’.
But Burger recovered and made a remarkable comeback, being picked for the Springbok squad to play against Australia and New Zealand in the Rugby Championship. Then he was named man-of-the-match in the November victory over England at Twickenham, in which he scored the decisive third try. Doctors said the average person would never have made it back to top class competition, let alone be named man-of-the-match in such a high pressure game.
Laureus World Sports Academy Member and All Blacks rugby legend, Sean Fitzpatrick, heaped praise on Burger: “The story of Schalk’s recovery is amazing. He not only survived such a serious illness, but in a relatively short time he was back in the Springboks team and winning matches for them. What a great tribute to his fighting spirit. All he needs now to complete this remarkable comeback is to have a wonderful World Cup later this year.”
Former Springbok captain Morné du Plessis, who was also manager of the 1995 World Cup winning team, said: “I have known Schalk and his family for many years and I know that there were very real concerns for his wellbeing during his illness. It really was a great relief for his family, friends and supporters to just see him well again, not even to think at that stage that he would make a miraculous comeback and be back to his best on the rugby pitch. I am sure he will have his eye on making a big impact in the World Cup for the Springboks. Schalk is also a responsible and caring human being who has done a great deal to support the work of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation in South Africa and he has been a wonderful Ambassador for Laureus.”
The names of the nominees will be announced on February 11 after the vote by the Laureus Global Media Selection Panel, comprising leading sports editors, sports writers, broadcasters and online journalists from around the world. The eventual winner will then be chosen, from that shortlist, in a secret ballot by the 47 members of the Laureus World Sports Academy - the living legends of sport honouring the greatest athletes of today - and revealed at the Laureus World Sports Awards Ceremony in Shanghai on April 15.
Some of the other memorable comeback performances of the year include:
After his move to AC Milan in 2012 and his first Italian cap, Francesco Acerbi was loaned to smaller Serie A clubs. The season ended with him being diagnosed with testicular cancer. He was out for almost a year. His career seemed over, but having won his battle against cancer he was signed by Sassuolo to play again in Serie A. After a couple of months the cancer reappeared, but he won his second battle against the illness and scored in his return to Serie A in Sassuolo’s 2-1 win over Parma. He was subsequently selected for the Italy squad in November for the games against Croatia and Albania.
Following bad injuries and poor form, Argentina’s Diego Milito, the man who scored the two goals in Inter Milan’s Champions League final win over Bayern Munich in 2010, returned to Argentina in 2014 to play again for his first club Racing of Avellaneda. He inspired the team to the Argentine championship for the first time in 13 years and secured for them a place in the 2015 Copa Libertadores.
Britain’s Jo Pavey won the 10 000 metres at the 2014 European Championships in Zurich – her first ever international gold medal - ten months after giving birth to her second child. She became the oldest female European champion in history, at 40 years and 325 days. She also won a bronze medal in the 5 000 metres in the Commonwealth Games.
Pierre Vaultier of France made a memorable comeback to win the Winter Olympics gold medal at Snowboard Cross just two months after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. It can take an athlete up to nine months to recover from that injury. Vaultier’s career has suffered badly because of injury. In December 2008 he suffered a lumbar fracture in training and missed most of the season.
Aged 34 and lying 792nd in the world rankings, Britain’s Oliver Wilson was on the verge of giving up golf, just six years after playing for Europe in the Ryder Cup in 2008. However in October he was given a sponsors’ invitation to play in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews and, after 228 European Tour starts, finally won a tournament and received the $800 000 first prize.