In an exclusive interview, Africa's first female Dakar driver on two wheels KIRSTEN LANDMAN talks about overcoming a life-threatening injury, breaking barriers in a male-dominated sport and having dinner with Ellen.
Sport24 asked: How has Covid-19 affected you as a professional athlete?
Kirsten Landman: We are facing some scary and testing times across the world. But we can all unite as one and do our bit to help prevent further spread of the virus. I was travelling up until last Friday and had to fly back home to Hillcrest outside KZN because I didn’t have a choice. As an athlete, the focus at the moment is to eat clean, stay healthy and train hard. Mentally, it’s demotivating knowing that you don’t have a race coming up - I don’t know when my next event will be - but at the same time this is a worldwide problem. Right now everyone’s priorities have shifted and I’m not even worried about my next race. Our race calendar in South Africa has been postponed until mid-to-late April but I don’t think we’ll be racing for the next two to three months in all honesty because we are only in the early phases of what’s going on here and the turnaround time will take a while. Unfortunately, my sense is that it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. I have cancelled my whole international series and pulled the plug on everything, with health and safety number one.
Sport24 asked: How did your life-threatening accident change you?
Kirsten Landman: During the time of the accident I never thought that I was going to lose my life. (In 2013 Landman ruptured her pancreas off her small intestine, had numerous surgeries and due to complications she was put on life support). I woke up nearly two weeks later from an induced coma and made a miraculous recovery owing to my age and fitness. As soon as I woke up, I said to myself I can’t wait to return to racing. Not getting back onto the bike was never an option. My life as far back as I can remember began when I got my first motorbike at the age of 8. For me, motorbiking is as easy as walking and that is all I have ever known. I wasn’t going to let the near-death experience defeat me. I live to ride and if I’m not riding, I’m not living. But I’m not saying I’m going to go flat out now and take chances. It always takes one big accident to bring you back down to earth and realise that you are human. That one did and also made me realise I have been given a second chance at life. I committed to myself that I am going to do as many races as I can, travel the world and have fun while doing it. I did extreme races - which are really slow, more controlled and technical - up until 2018 and then decided that I needed to get over my fear of speed because it was holding me back so much in the world of hard enduro. And I asked myself: What better race to overcome my fear than by doing the Dakar?
Sport24 asked: How would you sum up your Dakar 2020 experience?
Kirsten Landman: I can’t believe it has come and gone. Everything that Dakar is supposed to be, it was. It was emotional, exhilarating, scary and a dream come true all at the same time. I now wish that I could have slowed things down at the time and taken it in. However, we were competing and it went by as fast as the pace of the race. It all seems a blur but when I look at videos and pictures of the event all the memories come flooding back. It puts a smile on my face. I spent two and a half years preparing for the race and now I’m kind of twiddling my thumbs and wondering what’s next. I haven’t necessarily reached the pinnacle of my career but I have done the biggest race within my sporting discipline. I’m exceptionally grateful I have completed Dakar and that it went so well. (Landman finished 55th overall, ninth in the rookie class and third in the female category). I raced a smart race and had no problems with my bike. Physically, I was so well-prepared that everything went to plan. As a team, we executed exceptionally well because we planned effectively. As much as I was alone on the bike, there were so many people who helped me get there. Ryobi Africa - a very big part of my team - have supported me all the way and are the reason I managed to make my Dakar dream a reality.
Sport24 asked: How did you go from the Dakar to doing the Dusi?
Kirsten Landman: I got back from Dakar and was kind of bored. One of my mates joked with me and said, “We know you’ve always wanted to do the Dusi so why don’t you do it?” I was giving a talk in Pietermaritzburg and the joke got around. One of the organisers of Dusi was in the audience and he came up to me after the talk and said, “I heard you’d like to do the Dusi. We’ve got two weeks which is enough time to do your proficiency and find your partner.” I’m a lastminute.com kind of person and I loved being challenged so I thought the Dusi Canoe Marathon would be awesome. I paired up with Chris Harburn who had done 17 Dusis. I like to do different sports and alternate types of training. I now realise how strong paddlers actually are and have a whole new respect for them. I train hard for riding and run, cycle and swim but my upper body took a pounding. I also do strength work but I had never paddled in my life. At the end of Dusi, I had only paddled eight times in my life! It’s such a cool event, so much so I want to go back next year. And, if I learn the river well enough, I want to enter the K1 category. Doing the Dusi was like enduro on water. It was technical and we had to make smart line choices and look after our boat because if it broke, we weren’t going to finish the race.
Sport24 asked: How have you excelled in a male-dominated realm?
Kirsten Landman: I am a female in a male-dominated sport but I see myself as a fellow competitor. Men are stronger and are more naturally talented on a motorbike but I have honed in on my skills to match that. I have really worked hard on my fitness and skills so that I don’t waste energy. I started racing at the age of 14 and, at the time, it was unheard of for a female to be on a motorbike. However, for me, it’s the norm as I have only ever raced against boys and then men. In that realm, I see myself as an equal amongst men. I have never expected preferential treatment and I’ve never said because I’m a girl you can help me through the section. I always opt to be in the normal class with the men rather than the ladies. It’s not that I don’t want to race against females but I don’t want to do something which is easier. I’m capable of doing what the guys are doing because I have been racing from such a young age. I get really motivated by beating guys. The majority of the men are so supportive but there will always be those who say, “You shouldn’t be here because it (motorsport) is too hard for a woman.” When someone tells me that I can’t do something it fires me up and fuels my drive.
Sport24 asked: Which female athletes serve as inspiration to you?
Kirsten Landman: Serena Williams is setting the pace. She has been a huge standout for me and is still fighting for equal pay within the tennis world. It’s also been inspirational seeing what she has done as a black female. In the football world, Megan Rapinoe, being gay in a male-dominated sport and having taken her team to World Cup glory, is inspiring. She is still fighting for equality, equal pay and gay rights and is ticking all the boxes. Another woman who inspires me is Ronda Rousey. She is just an outright beast in terms of what she does in all forms of her career whether it be acting or MMA fighting. I like to look up to people who do things differently and admire those setting the pace for women. I do support a lot of men’s sport but am hugely pro-female. As the top female rider in the country, I want to be paid the same as the top male. It is a constant battle that I’m facing and I tend to get nowhere. It’s frustrating because the amount of effort I put in and he does is the same or maybe even more from my side. I get as much, if not more public coverage on social media, but females are still not paid the same. Sponsors will throw all the products in the world at me but why not pay me a salary? I’m hoping I can be that change for the younger female generation coming up strong, which I am really happy about. I hate being treated any differently because there is no difference between us.
Sport24 asked: What’s your view on the postponement of Tokyo 2020?
Kirsten Landman: Everyone’s health and safety is a priority and it would have been silly for the IOC to have gone ahead with the Olympics. However, in terms of the preparation, the mind work, the eating, sleeping, training and calendar planning, it’s heart-breaking for the Olympic athletes. Every year we have Dakar and Route of Africa, whereas the Olympic Games only come around every four years. For those going for their first and last Olympics, a postponement or cancellation is quite devastating and I really do feel sorry for them. (The Tokyo Olympics are now set to only be held in 2021 owing to the current Covid-19 pandemic). As an athlete, I periodize my programme to lead up to an event. Postponing is just as good as cancelling the showpiece because it throws everything out for athletes. I understand that health and safety is paramount as you cannot have athletes getting sick but it’s sad because they have spent their whole lives preparing for this global event.
Sport24 asked: Which three dream dinner guests would you invite?
Kirsten Landman: I would definitely like to have dinner with Megan Rapinoe. I could learn so much from her in terms of being a female in a male-dominated sport. I would also invite Laia Sanz, who is the female world leader in motorsport and has won multiple world championships. She is my outright hero. Last but not least, from entertainment I would extend an invitation to Ellen DeGeneres. She is an animal activist, like me, is funny and is changing the world with her push for gay rights. I think Ellen also brings so much positivity to the planet.