DEEP HEAT URBAN ATHLETES: Nolene Conrad
A born and bred Capetonian, Nolene Conrad is one of South Africa’s most accomplished distance runners and most definitely no stranger to hard work, determination and the ability to ‘keep going’.
Originally hailing from Bishops Lavis and growing up in Blue Downs, Nolene is one of four siblings. “It was not always the easiest of years. Growing up, life was very hard financially and my teenage years were particularly tough.”
On top of financial hardships, at 13, Nolene was also diagnosed with chronic asthma – a condition that grew progressively worse and saw her spending prolonged periods of time in hospital. “It was very scary. There were days I would lie in hospital on a ventilator, feeling very scared and alone. Other days, I would sit and watch my siblings play and have fun – something I could not do in case it sparked another asthma attack.”
At 16, after a particularly severe asthma attack and near death experience, Nolene’s doctor gave her a choice – take up swimming or running (the only chance to potentially outgrow her asthma), or very likely not live to see her 21st birthday.
Nolene took to running and, discovering a natural talent, showed enormous promise. “At the end of my matric year, I desperately wanted to pursue my running and follow a career in sport. My dream was also to obtain a sports bursary that would enable me to study further.” However, to do this would mean leaving home and finding a way to support herself financially.
“I was enormously blessed to be able to live with my assistant coach, Vonney Dreyer, during this time. She not only fed me but spent many hours working with me, helping me to achieve great results.” One year later, Nolene was selected to the South African team and awarded a bursary to study Sports Management at UWC where she graduated Cum Laude – the only one of her siblings to receive a degree. Nolene then went on to complete both her Honours in Sports Management and Post Graduate Certificate in Education (UJ).
However, it was several years before Nolene would completely outgrow her asthma. “The more I ran, the better it became. But, for several years I would still experience attacks and, at times, when running that would then impact my races. Once, during the SA trials, due to an asthma attack I was unable to complete the race. As a result, I did not make the team.”
There have been other setbacks too including several injuries that saw Nolene fall just short of a qualifying time for the Rio Olympics and, more recently, took her out of training for 14 months in the build-up to the Tokyo Olympics. It has, at times, been devastating. “Since the age of 17, I have had a dream to represent South Africa at the Olympics. It hasn’t worked out … yet, but Paris 2024 awaits and will be my final attempt before retiring from sport.”
Regardless though Nolene has an impressive list of accomplishments to her name including, amongst other; SA Marathon Champion (2018), 25th at World Athletics Half Marathon Championships (Gold Label Status), SA 10km Champion (2014), 3x SA 3000m Steeple Chase Champion including SA 2000m Steeple Chase Record holder (2016). Nolene has also been nominated for, and won, various sports woman and female athlete of the year awards in addition to being acknowledged by Discovery Vitality for her contribution to sport.
But, for Nolene, success is about so much more than just personal achievement. It provides her with a platform to fulfil one of her greatest desires – that of giving back to her extended community by contributing towards the empowerment and development of others.
As part of Endurocad Sports Academy (an NGO founded by Olympic Silver Medalist, Elana Meyer), Nolene is very involved in mentoring, athlete development and the ‘Young Females Empowerment Programme’ (scouting for new talent). She also started her own online coaching programme during lockdown, June 2020.
Other initiatives have seen Nolene raise over R29,500.00 for Covid-19 relief for athletes who rely on income from races to feed themselves and their families. And, between the years of 2018 to 2020, Nolene also used the Cape Town Marathon as an opportunity to raise no less than R 80,000.00 for young women on the GivenGain platform. This year, Nolene is joining forces with JP Duminy (former South African cricket player) to, once again, raise much needed funds.
Four years ago, Nolene also started the SACANRUN Shoe Drive to encourage all sponsored athletes to donate their shoes (no longer worn) to other runners not as fortunate. To date SACANRUN has collected, and donated, well over 1,000 pairs of running shoes. And, as a ‘Women for Change Ambassador’ (a movement to create awareness for and raise funds to end gender-based violence), Nolene’s responsibility is that of a positive role model and to create awareness for issues affecting women, thereby helping to create positive change.” Nolene also spends considerable time at schools and clubs, sharing her story and testifying to the benefits of sport.
“It’s important for me to be involved in initiatives in and around my community and it is something very close to my heart. I know what it is like to struggle and I vowed to help others wherever possible.”
And it is that commitment to others, together with her health journey, that keeps Nolene going!
“My health is so valuable and precious to me, even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic. After my near-death experience, health is something I will never take for granted and so I vow to live a healthy and active lifestyle. That, and knowing I am a role model and inspiration to so many – especially the young people in my community. It is so important they have a role model to aspire to and one that will keep them motivated and encouraged. There’s a large part of me that keeps going, just for them!”
Keep Going Nolene!