South Africa’s Five Famous Female Athletes
You know you’re famous when people can just use a first name* and everyone knows exactly who you are. This is certainly true for each of these five female running stars (even outside of running circles): Frith, Zola, Elana, Blanche and Sonja – surname not required!
* The opposite of being ‘individually first name famous’ is to be ‘collectively surname infamous’. The Kardashians are a good example of this.
This is a spin-off article from the research I did for a longer piece about “Honouring Female Athletes”. One of the questions I asked as many current and former elite female runners as I could was, “Which South African female athletes do you think have earned the honour of having a race and/or medal named after them?” I received a really long list of names and ideas back but Frith, Zola, Elana, Blanche and Sonja were the most popular.
Although there are plenty of South African races and medals named after men, there is just one race named after a female athlete (the late Riana van Niekerk) and no medals. There are very few international female honourees either – and just one race globally is named after a living female athlete (The Sonia O’Sullivan 10k in Cobh, Ireland).
This article summarises the achievements of each of the “Famous Five” and proposes how we can recognise their achievements.
Frith van der Merwe
I checked the results database and there is literally only one “Frith” to have ever run Comrades – and the only Frith ever to have run Comrades is the woman most South Africans associate with the race.
She won the race three times, setting records on both the Up and Down runs in the process. Her 1989 down record of 5:54:43 still stands. The victory shattered Lindsay Weight’s existing record by over 51 minutes – Frith finished over an hour ahead of the second woman and was 15th overall (she was finishing so fast many pundits think she would have made top ten had the race been a few kilometres longer).
Like her 1989 Comrades performance, Frith emerged streaks ahead of the rest of the field. Every single respondent highlighted Frith on their list of athletes to honour. Many expressed surprise (one even called it a travesty) that Frith has not already been honoured.
Although her 1989 Comrades performance is the standout, she also set records at all of South Africa’s big ultras: Two Oceans, Om Die Dam, Loskop and City to City (the latter has sadly disappeared off the calendar). Almost 30 years later and her course records at Two Oceans and Om Die Dam still stand – as does her world record for 50km (set during the 1989 Two Oceans).
In addition, she broke the South African marathon record several times – ending her career with a best time of 2:27:36 and 53 marathon victories.
Although it has been a long time since Frith ran competitively, she can still be spotted running ParkRuns around Benoni at just over four minutes per kilometre.
Recommendation: Based on the responses I’ve received, a sub-7 “Frith” medal for ladies at Comrades is the popular option – over to you CMA.
Aside: A few lucky individuals get to appreciate naming honours in their lifetime. An example is Chet Sainsbury who, although never quite able to achieve a Sainsbury medal, made several valiant attempts to do so. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get Frith van der Merwe out of retirement to try an earn a sub-7 hour Frith van der Merwe medal at Comrades?*
* Not much could trump Wally Hayward’s Comrades “comeback” times of 9h44 (on the 1988 Up Run) and 10h58 (on the 1989 Down Run) as a 79 and 80-year-old but Frith running under 7-hours at Comrades to earn her own medal would certainly do it!
Zola Budd burst onto the scene as a barefooted 15-year old when she won the national 1500m and 3000m titles. Two years later (in 1984) she broke the 5000m world record by 6 seconds (clocking 15:01.83) – and a year after that, still just 18, she smashed the 5000m world best again with an astonishing 14:48.07. She also claimed two World Cross-Country Championship titles (1985 and 1986).
Zola still runs cross-country races around her adopted home in South Carolina, USA and returned home to run Comrades in 2012 and 2014 (where she finished 7th with a 6h55 and was the first veteran across the line).
She is perhaps the athlete who has had the biggest cultural impact in South Africa. Although now obsolete, for many years taxis in the townships were known as “Zola Budds” because they were so fast and Brenda Fassie had a hit single with the song “Zola Budd” in the 1980s.
Reading through several ‘reminiscence and reflection’ interviews with Zola, she expresses a lot of regret and disappointment. However, her love of cross-country and off-road running prevails. What does she miss the most? “I miss the off-road routes in Bloemfontein and my beloved Kimberley Road where I used to run.”
Recommendation: Have a cross-country or trail race in the surrounds of Bloemfontein named after the most famous barefoot runner ever. If there is a race director who likes a bit of wordplay, the “Zola Budd Spring Day Race” is a blooming good idea (and the medal could be in the form of the “Zola Budd” minibus taxi).
We have several “Executive Mayor’s” races around the country but no “Elana Meyer” race – yet. On her first ever competitive run off African soil, Elana brought home a silver medal for South Africa in the 10,000m at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games.
Elana had a long and illustrious career and truly excelled in the half marathon distance – breaking the world record four times and winning the World Half Marathon Championships in 1994 (she is the only South African woman to win a global World Championships road title).
Interestingly, she showed promise over this distance from a very early age. After a neighbour told her about a race in the nearby town of Bredasdorp called the ‘Voet of Afrika’, a 13-year old Elana Meyer arrived at the start. She summarily beat the rest of the field with a 1:27 half marathon – only to get disqualified because she was too young and didn’t have a license number!
After retiring from competitive athletics, she has spent her time developing the next generation of athletes. She is currently heavily involved in ENDUROCAD (which she co-founded) as well as the Cape Town Marathon (the only Gold certified AIMS marathon in Africa).
Recommendation: Breaking world records is rare, breaking them for the same distance four times is truly unique. Elana deserves recognition with a half marathon (or the SA Half Marathon Championships) being named in her honour.
If there is a first lady of South African road running it would be Blanche Moila. Unassuming and understated, yet determined and driven, she is easily recognisable for the white turban she has worn over her 40-year involvement with South African athletics.
Blanche became the first black female Springbok athlete in 1984 (with her wry sense of humour she prefers to call herself the first “melanin-enriched” athlete). Not only did she break many barriers during the dark days of apartheid, she also broke her fair share of records as well. At one stage she held every Kwazulu Natal provincial record from 1500m to the marathon.
In these days of semi-professionalism, it’s rare for a runner of Blanche’s profile to remain with a “regular” club but she continues to loyally run in the black and white kit of Savages Athletic Club (despite being enticed several times by the commercial clubs).
After concluding her professional running career, she has continued running and used her status to help develop athletics in rural black communities and dispel the myths that perpetuate around female distance running. On top of this, Blanche does a massive amount of work (and running) for AIDS and anti-drug related charities.
Old age isn’t slowing her down either. Blanche still gets up at 4:30am to run every morning before starting her shift as a senior psychiatric nurse at Durban’s King George V Hospital. She also finished her 15th Comrades this year (well under 10-hours) and is likely to win the 2018 Spar Ladies Grand Prix in the over 60-year old category.
Blanche received the State President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2001 and was voted Shoprite Checkers Woman of the Year for Sport in 2002. Her contributions have also been acknowledged closer to home – a local school she is heavily involved with named one of their houses after her whilst another school has a Blanche Moila floating trophy.
Although she has received plenty of accolades over the years, she’s yet to be formally recognised by the running community.
Recommendation: Based on her lifelong involvement with Kwazulu Natal athletics, a race in this province honouring Blanche Moila seems logical – perhaps the Blanche Moila ‘Urban Turban in Durban’ Marathon.
It has been said that there are two certainties in life – death and taxes. If you’re a runner in Gauteng there’s a third – seeing Sonja Laxton on the podium of every race she enters.
Sonja’s career spans five decades and includes 70 national titles and more outright and category victories than one can count. In discussions with her husband, Ian (who was the “voice of Comrades” for 30 years on SABC), the conservative estimate would be 1000 – 2000 victories across all disciplines. Road running victories alone must be in the high hundreds (I doubt that there is another athlete in the world with more wins to his or her name).
Sonja was the first woman to receive South African national colours for track, cross-country and road running. Over the course of her career, she set 28 national records and at one stage held almost every national record from 1500m to the marathon. She broke the South African record on her debut marathon (Sonja only ran it because an irritating little blond chap in her training group called Bruce Fordyce kept nagging her about running a marathon).
As a veteran, master and grandmaster athlete she continued to break records and still holds most of South Africa’s age category road running records. Not for lack of trying by several generations of talented athletes, her 10km, 15km, half and full marathon veteran records all still stand 30 years later.
Even a serious accident in 2013 couldn’t slow Sonja down. She suffered multiple fractures after a hit-and-run whilst out training but returned to the road six months later after two surgeries and a stint in intensive care.
Sonja turned 70 this August and no doubt already has her sights set on all the great-grandmaster records!
Recommendation: Name a Gauteng 10k or half marathon after the most successful athlete of all time – potentially one of the existing RAC races (Sonja has been a loyal member since 1986). It would also be great to have an annual “Sonja Laxton Lifetime Achievement” award – perhaps even across all sporting codes since I can’t think of any other sportsperson worldwide who has remained competitive in their sport for over 50 years.
Disagree with the choices? Let me know!
Below is the full list of names that were mentioned from the responses received. Where possible, I have linked to the best article about each athlete that I could find.
Alet Kleynhans, Ann Ashworth, Ann McKenzie, Blanche Moila, Caroline Wöstmann, Christine Kalmer, Colleen de Reuck, Elana Meyer, Elizabeth Cavanagh, Evelina Tshabalala, Farwa Mentoor, Frances Hayward, Frith van der Merwe, Geraldine Watson, Grace de Oliveira, Gwen van Lingen, Helen Lucre, Isavel Roche-Kelly, Jowaine Parrott, Ulla Paul, Lettie van Zyl, Lindsay Weight, Maureen Holland, Mavis Hutchinson, Monica Drogemoller, Nicole Fuller, Rene Kalmer, Riana van Niekerk, Sarah Mahlangu, Sarina Cronje, Sonja Laxton, Tanith Maxwell, Tilda Tearle, Zola Budd.
Note: All photos in this article were sourced from Google search. Where listed, I have credited the photographer/copyright owner. Please let me know of any omissions and I will rectify.Follow Running Mann: