Sports stars sparkle in newspaper headlines, gain coveted gold cups, and give their blood, sweat and tears for the game… but what will happen when they’re a little older, the headlines have faded and they’ve sweated out all their talent?
Driven by an incredible lust to achieve, to perfect their skills, they’re winners… for now. But what happens when their thousands of fans (and critics) have stopped watching their every move?
And that does happen to sports stars. Unlike your average career, achieving in the sporting arena is one “profession” which usually has to end years before the conventional retirement age.
If it’s not the biological clock that steps in, it’s the injuries which curtail a sportsperson’s ambitions. And in South Africa, it’s often also the political pressures which rudely strike a half to the ambitions of a young sports competitor.
TALK asked four major sports personalities whether all the dedication and self-discipline are worth it, how they have, or are, preparing for a time when the game’s over, and what advice they’d pass on to budding sports stars.
JUMPING IN THE DEEP END
Nobody, including Annette Cowley, will ever know how many more records the ace swimmer could’ve broken. Political pressure dampened her zest to continue swimming competitively and ever reach her full potential.
In 1986, after having won two titles in the British Nationals in career-best times, she made the British Team to compete in the Commonwealth Games, but hours before her race Annette was kicked off the team because of being born in South Africa.
That experience triggered off a lot of doubt over whether the training and trauma were actually worth it all. The result was that in April 1988 Annette quit competitive swimming, forfeiting any chance she had to realizing her greatest dream – to compete in the Olympics. But the Commonwealth fiasco had drained her of most of her enthusiasm, and at the back of her mind Annette was certain that she would be banned yet again.
She returned to South Africa with a B.Sc degree in advertising, from the University of Texas, and was offered a position as promotions manager for a major sportswear manufacturing firm – a career which would allow her to “stay in tune with the sporting world.” It was a great start to her “life after sport” days.
She’s since taken on a new position as product manager of Arena and Le Coq Sportif coordinating the ranges for both the brands, and has enthusiastically immersed herself into making a successful career in the sportswear industry.
But although she’s loving her new life and “can’t get enough of it,” there are things about her old lifestyle which Annette misses. Things like the friends, the winning, being at her peak level of fitness… and being able to eat mega-loads of chocolate!
What she is relieved to have left behind are the 5 am workouts and the politics, but there are no regrets.
“I’ve travelled all over the world, made lifetime friends and learnt a tremendous amount of discipline which helps me to this day. The memories, the people, and the golden moments will be with me for the rest of my life,” she says.
Her advice to others is to accept that it requires extremely hard work in order to succeed, and there’s no easy way out.
“Just keep at it because these are the very best years of your life. You can learn so much, you grow so much. And it’s easy to study part-time because you discipline your time. You don’t wait around for better days. You do it NOW because now is the only time you have. And make the most of it. You only live once…”
He’s been cheered and jeered, idolized and victimized. But what others may have buckled under the siege of public scrutiny, Naas Botha has weaved his way through the hecklers to sustain an outstanding rugby career.
But he’s aware that the game can’t go on forever, and for the time when it is over he’s equipped with a degree in Physical Education and Psychology from the University of Pretoria.
“I’ve always believed I’ve got to have some form of education behind me because in sport anything can happen to you, so you need to be prepared,” he points out.
Not that he’s had to opt out of rugby yet. It’s been 23 years, and the guy’s still going for it! From early beginnings playing provincial primary school rugby, the famed fly-half went on to secure a place at only 19 in the Northern Transvaal team and then made his debut as a Springbok in 1980 and has subsequently competed in 23 internationals.
In the interim Naas has also participated in ventures off the competitive field, such as coaching rugby at Tukkies at one stage… a way of giving back to rugby what he’s reaped from it.
He’s presently a director at Robert Denton marketing company, and is also involved in three other projects: the recent launch of his biography – Naas (by Edward Griffiths), Sportdata and Sport-a-cize.
Both Sportdada and Sport-a-cize aim at limiting players’ injuries through implementing correct training methods. The former involves customized, computerized training programs while the latter consists of four videos which teach the basic training skills for various sports.
But, while it appears that Naas’ leanings are towards training and coaching, he hasn’t yet determined which direction he’ll take once he hangs up those proverbial boots in two or three years’ time.
One thing’s for certain. He doesn’t regret having dedicated so many years of his life to sport.
“Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. This is the life I decided to live. There are good times and bad times, but at the end of the day, it’s totally worth it. For me, it’s not a sport, it’s a lifestyle,” says Naas with conviction.
His advice to others it that “while the South African attitude tends to be that a kid should grow up being able to do everything, I personnally think that the sooner you choose which sport to specialize in, the better your chances are of excelling that field. And whoever you are, aim to reach the top!”
But not all sports personalities share Naas’ enthusiasm about the life of sport. Some, like Zola Budd, are relieved to ease their way out of that lifestyle. A life which saps you of your energies, rapes you of your personal life and spits you out as a public commodity.
The dedication demanded to be a winner, coupled with political pressures and possibly being controlled by the “wrong” people, have resulted in a young 23-year-old elatedly turning her back on international competition and instead settling comfortably into married life with Mike Pieterse.
Remember the days when our newspapers were saturated with articles on Zola and her bid to participate in the Olympics at Los Angeles in 1984, how she gained her British citizenship and how her high hopes were dashed at the Olympics when Mary Decker Slaney tripped over her heels during the 5 000m sprint. And then Zola herself was barred from running at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
It’s no wonder that the one-time barefoot star from Bloem has quit serious athletic running, relinquished her right to compete on the international track and opted to become a computer programmer instead. She’s presently studying a three-year data processing course at the Orange Free State Technikon. Now running is a pleasure, not a pain.
“I don’t miss the competitive side of running at all,” says Zola adamantly, with no trace of remorse in her voice. “I’m still training, but not as seriously. It’s too one-sided and anyway, running professionally gets very boring. Although I made some nice friends, you don’t get to meet a lot of people.
“It’s a totally unbalanced life. I’m far happier now doing things for myself. I definitely regret ever having been involved in competitive running. For one, I began when I was so young (14) so I missed out on ever leading a normal teenage life.”
And Zola, the holder of 17 South African running titles, advises others to avoid the situation she got into by questioning their reasons for being involved in competitive sport.
“If you’re enjoying it, then spend as much time in your sport as possible. But you’ve got to be quite selfish and ensure that you’re doing it for yourself and not for other people.”
WHAT A WICKET!
Hugh Page’s stunning bowling speeds and command of the game of cricket has enabled him to not only play for his country but to also bask in the pleasures of professional play and pay. Through cricket he’s made some money, travelled the world and established life-long friendships with people of various nationalities.
But he’s realistic. he knew it couldn’t last forever.
“It was a wonderful lifestyle – ideal for a bachelor – but, although I could have carried on playing cricket professionally for a few more years, the time comes when one has to think of one’s future,” says Hugh.
Hugh’s cricket career began back in the days when he was a schoolboy at Kind Edward VII School (KES) in Jo’burg. But it was only a year after matriculating that he started taking the game really seriously. He was made an offer to play professionally and consequently spent the next six years alternating between South Africa and England. As a professional he was paid to play and what a way to earn money.
With six months a year spent in South Africa playing cricket and coaching it, and then six months in the UK just playing, Hugh had plenty of time to enjoy windsurfing, golf and watching movies.
“In the UK it was even better because there was more time to do whatever I wanted. I must admit it was great fun!” he grins.
But then he realized that he needed to prepare himself for the future, and now Hugh, dogged by a knee injury, plays semi-professionally while he pursues a career in marketing at PG Timbers.
Although he hasn’t completed any ‘varsity or tech course, Hugh’s participation in competitive cricket involved a lot of ublic relations which he believes put him in good stead for working in the marketing environment.
“I was never university material but by playing cricket professionally I got to travel and met so many people. All those experiences, I believe were better than any university education I could have had.
“For others who are considering taking their sport seriously I would say that if you’re not going to be travelling abroad to play for part of the year, you should make provisions for yourself by securing a second job,” advises Hugh.