Former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers opens up about his first Christmas without his wife

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Peter de Villiers and his wife, Theresa, who was found drowned in a swimming pool at the home of friends in Gqeberha in April this year. (PHOTO: Misha Jordaan and Corrie Hansen)
Peter de Villiers and his wife, Theresa, who was found drowned in a swimming pool at the home of friends in Gqeberha in April this year. (PHOTO: Misha Jordaan and Corrie Hansen)

Festive lights flicker in the street and decorations are strung from the windows of neighbourhood homes – but there’s little sign of festive cheer in this house. 

The only indication that Christmas is around the corner is a humble green and red wreath draped over a wooden cross standing almost forlornly in the corner of his study. 

For former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers, holiday traditions bring back memories of his wife, Theresa, sitting in their living room drinking ginger beer while listening to Christmas songs by Boney M and Mariah Carey. 

“Now we’re never going to do that again,” he says. 

It’s been eight months since Theresa (62) was found drowned in a swimming pool at the home of friends in Gqeberha and her absence has left a gaping hole in Peter’s heart. 

“If my wife was here, she would have treated you like royalty,” he says as an apology for not putting out any refreshments. 

Theresa worked as a primary school teacher and was always the one who made sure everyone around her was happy, he says. “She was a proper lady – she was soft. Even after I became the Springbok coach, she never became Mrs Springbok coach. She always remained her authentic self and was in the background supporting me.” 

The past few years have been particularly challenging for Peter, whose daughter, Odille, died of cancer in December 2019. In spite of the huge losses in his life he is trying to be optimistic and find a way to move forward as he faces the first Christmas without his wife. 

“I think it was a very good year for me because in more ways than one it opened my eyes to a greater force. I learned that you don’t have control over anything in life,” he says. 

“God made this happen for a reason. I’m trying to find the purpose because it says in the Bible that if you look back over your shoulder, you will miss the heavenly glory that’s in front of you, you know?” 

READ MORE | Former Bok coach Peter de Villiers is grieving again after his beloved wife drowned in a friend’s pool two years after their daughter's death

Theresa had planned a feast for her family and friends in Paarl for Easter Sunday, but decided to take a break along the coast before the big party. She was staying with family friends, Rafiek Hermans and his wife, Fatima, when tragedy struck. 

Peter, who pivoted from rugby to politics, lived in Paarl where he worked as a counsellor for the Good political party in the Drakenstein. 

The former Springbok coach lost his father, daught
The former Springbok coach lost his father, daughter and wife in the space of four years. (PHOTO: Misha Jordaan)

He couldn’t believe his ears when Rafiek called him about Theresa. “He told me she was in the swimming pool. Now, we’ve had a swimming pool since 2004 and she never swam in it, not once. She wasn’t a big water person. So, I joked ‘Leave her there, man’,” he recalls. 

“But then he said, ‘No, we’re not making a joke’ – and then it hit me.” 

The hardest part was breaking the news to his oldest daughter, Claudia. “I had to tell her, 'Your mother isn’t coming home.’ She asked, ‘Did she decide to stay longer?’ And I said, ‘She’s not coming home, ever’. Both of us went quiet and those two minutes seemed like days.” 

He wouldn’t have managed to get through those terrible first few days if it hadn’t been for Claudia. “She said, ‘Mom is with Odille now and we must make each other happy. It wasn’t helpful to hear that, but it did soothe me a little,” he says. 

Like any relationship, Peter and Theresa experienced their fair share of challenges in their 45 years of marriage, but he believes it made them stronger. 

“Being a person of colour in this country will always be tough because you start from nowhere and that’s the years that you either bond or grow apart from each other. We used those years to learn what respect was. She was the best part of my life,” he says. 

Theresa was his rock when they lost Odille and they got through their grief by reminding themselves of the daughter they still had. 

'If you think I have a big heart, you should’ve seen Theresa’s'
– Peter de Villiers

But the hurt of losing a child will never go away, Peter says. “Losing a daughter – especially one so gifted, who had the ability to attract everybody to her – is like losing a part of yourself.” 

Peter says praying and journalling every morning h
Peter says praying and journalling every morning helps. (PHOTO: Misha Jordaan)

His wife came to terms with Odille’s death and found a measure of happiness again, he says. 

When she and Peter lived in Gqeberha, where he coached the EP Elephants in 2021, they often used to go to the beachfront, which she called her happy place. 

The last time he spoke to his wife she told him she wanted to go to her special place again, but then ended up spending the day with her sister, who’d been visiting from Jeffrey’s Bay. 

“That evening she told me she had the time of her life with her sister. But she never went to her happy place,” he says. 

“My wife looked forward to coming home for Easter, but instead of hosting her family and friends for a big party we held her funeral instead. She was cremated and then I took her ashes to her happy place,” he continues. 

Peter quit politics in June this year and has now returned to coaching. “I stopped politics, not because I didn’t want to be there, but because if I can’t change the lives of other people, what’s the use of me being there?” he says. 

Peter has the support of close friends like John S
Peter has the support of close friends like John Stoffels. (PHOTO: Misha Jordaan)

In August, he was appointed as coach of the national deaf sevens team ahead of the 7s Deaf Rugby World Cup in Argentina in April and the job couldn’t have come at a better time. 

“I really love it. It’s been the biggest learning school of my life. I’m inspired to prepare the players to the best of my ability. And even if they don’t [qualify to] go to the World Cup, they’ll still be prepared to take on life.” 

The new year will also see him working on the Peter de Villiers Foundation, which aims to uplift the poor community in the Drakenstein. “Odille ran the foundation and when she passed I neglected it, so I’m picking it up again.”   

He wants to keep her memory alive through the foundation and his biggest dream is to build a high-performance indoor centre in Paarl to give back to the community. 

READ MORE | Peter de Villiers after cancer claims his daughter: ‘It was God’s will’

Peter plans to start Christmas morning just like he does every morning – reading the Bible, praying and journalling. Then he and Claudia will prepare lunch. 

Although their table won’t be groaning with food this year like it did when Theresa cooked, he isn’t too bothered “as long as I sit here and somebody knocks and visits and I can feed them,” he says. 

“If you think I have a big heart, you should’ve seen Theresa’s,” he adds. He can’t pinpoint what he’ll miss most about his wife “because how do you put 40 plus years in one paragraph? You can’t". 

“The one thing I can tell you is that this will never be home again. It will be my house forever, but it will never be home. Because she was home.” 

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