Post-apartheid Pietà

2014-02-14 00:00

NO matter how hot it is, training is never cancelled. This is a result of Chris, our African-American athletics coach, originating from central Texas. In his opinion, heat is good because it makes you sweat and “sweat is fat crying”. But if there is rain — not even rain, a slight drizzle — training is cancelled.

Luckily, half an hour before a Wednesday session, the rain stopped and the word was spread through the Maritzburg Athletics Club that training was still on. Along with the message, Tyler, a Grade 10 Maritzburg College sprinter, sent out what we call a fitspo (fitness inspiration) image. The image showed a photograph of a tiny ant lifting a twig three times its size and was captioned: “What lies behind us and what lies before us is tiny compared to what lies within us”.

At 3 pm, I was dropped off at the UKZN athletics track. The field was scattered with puddles; patches of silver swollen sky from the morning rain. In the holidays, UKZN is deserted and disconcertingly quiet — except for the vibrantly coloured assortment of athletes gathered on the stadium steps. The first thing you would probably notice about this group of people is its diversity — a brilliant assortment of different races, genders, ages, sizes and personalities.

There are the elite athletes: Siya, Brendon, Quentin and Michaela. Siya is blessed with charisma that allows him to be arrogant and opinionated, yet still entirely charming, interesting and likable. Brendon is the fastest man in KZN. He is a formidable, brooding character who exudes strength and power, and is dedicated to his girlfriend Kayla. Kayla trains with us too — always with perfect make up and never a platinum-blonde hair out of place — and does promotions at Hooters. Michaela is two years younger than me and is already sponsored by Jeep, goes to SA champs for five different sports a year and is probably the toughest 15-year-old you could meet.

Then there are Chris’s child protégé athletes: Owen, who is eight and has more energy than an Eskom power plant, and Juliet, who is solemn and quiet, and can run for kilometres without getting tired. On the other end of the scale there are the master-class athletes, Ursula and Adrian. Ursula has been a mentor and role model for me since I started, with her endless supply of advice and wisdom about the human body. And at the nucleus of the group there is Coach Chris.

As I join the group, Chris yells: “Yo, Ali Cat! How you today?” Chris is built like a warrior, tall and strong. He effortlessly hauls a pack of hurdles over his back and explains the day’s work out. He is not only our coach, but our spiritual mentor, physiotherapist and life coach, and knows everyone important in the South African sporting world, from Caster Semenya to the president of SA Athletics. The workouts always start with drills. These are a combination of dynamic stretching that functions to warm you up, improve flexibility, co-ordination and raise your heart rate. As I do mine, I hear Ursula say to me: “There goes our ballerina”, referring to my sub-conscious habit of pointing my feet.

Meanwhile, Michaela and Siya sprint to the centre of the field to start their drills. This is when it happens. The puddle erupts into spluttering wake as Micheala slips through it. The spectacle is utterly disconcerting for two reasons: firstly, Michaela is supernaturally co-ordinated and balanced — she simply does not fall — and, secondly, she does not get up again.

But before she can cry out in pain, Siya has scooped her up in his arms. He begins running to Chris on the other end of the field, revealing the athletic prowess he has spent years training to acquire.

In the midst of the chaos, the image of Siya carrying Michaela freezes in my mind. It was the exact pose of the iconic photograph of Hector Petersen as he is carried by Mbuyisa Makhube on June 16, 1976. The image of Michaela, a blonde white girl in the arms of a black boy became a symbol of hope for South Africa, a reminder of what apartheid freedom fighters stood for: equality. Here at Maritzburg athletics, this vision for South Africa is fulfilled. We care for each other, we work together to inspire each other and push ourselves to achieve our dreams.

• The True Stories winners have been announced and we will be running the remainder of the semi-finalists’ tales.

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