I was born in Bishop Lavis, one of the most dangerous suburbs in the Cape Flats outside Cape Town. Notorious for its criminal activities such as gangsterism and drug abuse, growing up in these circumstances were tough and not ideal for parents who are concerned with the safety of their children. My parents were disappointed with the habits I was picking up at an early age. At the tender age of eight I was already fighting and swearing my way around the neighbourhood.
I have three siblings- one older brother and two younger sisters. None of my family members are runners, however, both my parents came from a sporting background; my mother was a netball player and my dad was an above average rugby player. At the time, my father worked at Telkom as an electrician and my mother as a supervisor at Alnet Factory. Partly as a consequence of my negative behaviour, my parents realized that they had to move as this was not the environment they wanted to raise their kids in. So at the first available opportunity, we moved to a better area called Blue Downs. As my father was in and out of jobs, our family kept moving from one home to the next, and it was during this time when I fell ill and was diagnosed with severe asthma. We had just enough to get by, my parents could not even afford to pay our school fees, let alone take out medical aid for a sick child.
The event that changed my life
As I sat on our porch watching my three siblings play in the street, I thought to myself, ‘why me, why was I the one to be diagnosed with this horrible, life threatening illness?’. All I wanted was to play like the rest of the kids. Instead I was forced to sit on the side-lines as the change of season had led to me falling ill with the flu, which spurred on my asthma. I can remember holding my asthma pump in my hand as I inhaled to relieve some of the tightness in my chest, but little did I know that the worst was yet to come.
The next evening when I went to bed, my brother was sleeping in the bed next to me. My wheezing was so severe that you could hear me all the way to the living room area, but it was something that my siblings got used to, so it was not alarming to them. But I remember falling asleep and then waking up in the early hours of the morning, gasping for air, and realizing that I was having an asthma attack, I reached under my pillow for my asthma pump. After 2 puffs there was no relief and as I pressed to get some more air out of the canister, to my shock it was depleted. I checked for spares in my draw, but there was nothing, and that’s when I started to panic. So I made my way to my parents’ bedroom-which was right next to our room- and I woke up my mother. She immediately knew I was having an attack, woke my father and then they tried to contact the neighbours. Due to our financial hardship, we could not afford a car, which did not help in cases like these because I needed to get to a hospital as quickly as possible. As the minutes passed, so my condition worsened. As my breath started to fade, I felt my eyes starting to close. The next thing I remember was waking up in the ambulance with a nebuliser mask on my face headed for the hospital. I spent that entire week in the hospital because it was quite a severe attack. On my last day, the doctor checked my vitals before releasing me, and he gave me advice that I would never forget.
From gasping for air to competing with the best
After I left the hospital, the doctor’s words kept running through my mind and that was all I could think about. He said to me: ‘If you want to live to see your twenty first birthday, you have to do some form of activity to improve your lung capacity and try and outgrow the asthma. That is your only chance.’ It frightened me because my uncle died from asthma the previous year and I did not want to die suffering, so I decided I was going to do something about it. So when my friend introduced me to school cross country, I was not excited about the idea of running, but I decided to give it a go. On my first attempt I remember it as being such a terrible experience. I collapsed midway through the race frantically pumping air out of my asthma pump until medics assisted me. People always asked me why I came back every week or why I would put myself through that. For weeks I constantly needed medical attention and I failed to finish a race, but I persisted. I guess I’ve always had a stubborn nature; once I have my mind set on something, it is very hard for me to give up. I was so determined to overcome this illness that nothing would stop me, so I held onto the hope that I would one day outgrow it.
At the end of the Cross Country season, I decided to join my friend’s training group. Each day my sister (who was running at the time) and I were picked up from the 4-way stop close to our house by the assistant coach. I trained every day for 8 months still struggling to breathe through the sessions but it somehow became more tolerable. At home I would find every opportunity to race my brother, whether it was to the tuck shop or racing each other home after school, and that contributed to my general conditioning. When I returned to cross country the next year, I had everyone wondering where this petite, young girl came from. I was contesting for the top places every week, but still with my asthma pump tucked in my crop top and still collapsing as I crossed the finish line. But this was the start of many great things to come for me. I then realized that if I could manage to compete with the top girls after only 8 months of training, what was I not capable of doing if I devoted more time to training? This was the time when I started to fall in love with the sport. I was intrigued and started reading more about athletics. That’s when I came across my role model Elana Meyer for the first time. I was fascinated with her performance at the 1992 Olympic Games where she finished second behind Ethiopian Deruta Tulu, and my dream was to one day meet her. I also remember watching the Commonwealth Games one year, and when I saw Geraldine Pillay and Janice Josephs, it inspired me even more because they came from similar circumstances. They lived in impoverished communities with social ills and still made it to the top.
Factors that drove me to success
I am the only sibling in my family to have obtained a university degree. Not only did I graduate with a degree in Sports Management at the University of Western Cape, I graduated with an Honours degree in Sports Management at University of Johannesburg and then completed a post graduate diploma in Education as well. All of this because of my running talent.
It’s the year 2000, my last year of school, and I am faced with life changing decisions to make because I made a noticeable impression on the scouts. Two US universities approached me to compete for them, and after giving it much thought I decided to decline the offers. This was mainly due to me wanting to pursue my dream of representing my country. I wanted to wear the green and gold tracksuit so badly that I was willing pass up on this amazing opportunity. I decided that I was going to take a gap year to focus on my athletics, but my father was not impressed as he felt that the immediate need was not to “pursue hobbies” (as he called it), but to provide for the family. Our financial situation went from bad to worse when, in my matric year, my father lost his job and my mother’s salary was not enough to pay the rent and buy food, so we lost our house and had to move into a ‘wendy house’ on a plot of land my father owned. Every bit of money that I made from my road races I gave to my parents to assist them yet that was not enough. I had to leave my athletic aspirations to find a job to help the family or leave the household. Those were my options; it was rather upsetting having to find myself choosing between my family and athletic aspirations. I strongly believed that my athletic talent was a gift from God and if I was committed enough I could achieve success one day.
After hearing about my predicament, my assistant coach took me in and treated me like her own. She believed in me as much as I believed in myself and she supported me, clothed and fed me. I always refer to her as my guardian angel, as I believe God sent me the right person at the perfect time.
During that gap year, I trained very well and I was looking good for the following year’s track season. The next year I competed at the SA Senior Championships and surprised everyone including myself when I not only won the 3000m Steeple chase title, but I also broke the South African record in that race. It was an emphatic victory for me. I managed to outclass the multiple SA champion who won the event for a consecutive amount of years. I was basically an unknown in the athletics world, I was the underdog and I loved it because no one expects anything from you. Young, inexperienced and unaware of what I had just done, the crowd was on their feet applauding me. I was gobsmacked and did not know how to handle all the attention. When asked what went through my mind in the last two laps when I closed down a 300m gap held by the defending champion, I replied, “I believed I could do it, the crowd got behind me, and that made me push harder”.
I still regard 2006 as my best sporting year ever. I made my first national team, and it happened to be the senior team to the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Australia. I loved the experience, it was an eye-opener and it instilled in me more passion for running. Who knew that, two years after I watched my role models Janice Josephs and Geraldine Pillay on television, I was going to represent my country at the same international competition with them.
I learnt at an early age that I was responsible for my own life. I became financially independent when I was 17 years old, basically paying my own hospital bills when I was admitted and buying my first car at the age of 27. I had to create my own reality, I could not rely on others to make things happen for me, and neither could I blame my parents or my circumstances. I refused to be a victim of my circumstance! I knew I was capable of achieving success in life, so I did what I had to do- I worked hard for it. I took every opportunity that came my way and I was willing to make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish my goals in life.
Fast forward to 2018, and I am still living my dream and pursuing my goal of competing at the Olympic Games. With the 2020 Olympic Games in sight, it seems more possible as each day passes by. Not only has my athletic career blossomed over the years, but my personal career has taken flight as well. I have teamed up with one of the legends of South African sport, Elana Meyer, to work with an academy that ignites my passion and brings joy and purpose to my life. Elana has been my role model since I was a junior, and I never thought that I would one day work alongside with her. She has also become my mentor, so it has truly been dream come true.
Throughout my life I have experienced hardships, challenges and disappointments, and I had to make many sacrifices to achieve something in life, but I never had any regrets. I see my battle with my illness as a blessing in disguise, the people that entered my life as guardian angels, and believe that my path was already created and decided by God. So despite what others would perceive as a disadvantage, I see it as an opportunity to rise above the challenges.