Running with renowned Ilze Wicksel

Ntombi Mkandhla

At the recent Liquid Telecom Athletix Grand Prix meeting, Caster Semenya broke the Women’s 1000 m record with a time of 2:35.44. The former record stood strong for 35 years and was placed by Ilze Wicksell in 1983. “People always  ask me how I feel about my record being broken,” Wicksell said, adding that she “knew” Semenya would break it. “[Semenya] trained hard and achieved her goals. I am extremely glad for her.” Semenya beat Wicksell’s 2:37.45 record by just under two seconds. Wicksell said that while it brings great pride to have held a record for over three decades, a record cannot stand for so long. “That means something is wrong,” she added. Wicksell expressed her hope to see middle distance running grow further in South Africa, particularly for women. “Middle distance running needs speed and endurance,” she said, a combination which may deter many athletes from pursuing the sport.

Growing up in the 1970s, Wicksell did not have speed but she certainly had endurance. “I never made the relay team [in primary school] as they picked the four fastest.” Nonetheless, she carried on running while doing other sports all through to high school at Hoërskool Menlopark. “I never thought of being an athlete, it was purely for enjoyment,” she added.

As she studied teaching at the University of the Freestate, Wicksell was coached by the renowned De Villiers Lamprecht whom she said “guided her and motivated her”. During her first year at university, she did not make the finals at the South African National Track and Field Championships’ 800m race. “But we pushed. In my second year, I went down to Potchefstroom and I won the race with a time of 2.03” she said. Her performance resulted in her being shortlisted for the Springbok side. “After that,” Wicksell said, “I knew I could run”.

Wicksell went on to win the 800m SA title consecutively for the next four years. It was in 1983 when Wicksell met her goal and the public expectation to run a sub two-minute in the 800m race in Stellenbosch. This made her the first African woman to achieve such a feat. As she tore through the ribbon, Wicksell said, “at that moment, I wanted to call my father, but I couldn’t because he had died in January […] so I just burst into tears instead.”

Wicksell credited her family as great driving forces in her athletic career. “But they never pushed me or anything,” she said. Due to sanctions placed upon South Africa during apartheid, local athletes could not participate internationally. “Running back then was more of a hobby […] all we ever did was compete amongst ourselves,” Wicksell said. She added that because the only athletic exposure they had was across the border in Namibia, she “did not know what she missed” because of the sanctions. However, when the Springbok squad was flown to Helsinki in 1983 to watch the IAAF World Championships, the consequences of isolation hit. She recalled sitting in the stands watching Jarmila Kratochvílová on the track with “tears in [her] eyes”, wishing that she too could have been running. “We just watched, […] we could do nothing,” she said.

An Achilles injury in 1984 stopped her from running for seven years. Nine years later, married and a mother, Wicksell hit the track in Mauritius where she won bronze in the 800m. In 1997, she won the World Veteran Championships 800m race. Wicksell said that although training was slightly more difficult in her thirties, she drew a lot of strength from being a mother. “You are definitely stronger after children,” she said, adding that she gained more discipline from one.

Today, Wicksell is still involved in sports and is the manager for specialized and individual sports at TuksSport. She hopes more students participate in sport, even if it is just for recreational purposes. “Sport makes your whole life broader,” Wicksell said. “We need more Casters to come through,” she added.


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