Elana Meyer is one of South Africa’s top women athletes, having set 23 South African records, and her domination of the domestic road running scene is without peer, having lost only five times to another South African on the road.
With a focus on Distance Running and the gsport April theme of Responsibility, we were fortunate enough to talk to Elana, South Africa’s Olympic Silver Medalist who has broken 6 world records in her distinguished career, and remains the World Record Holder for the 21,1km discipline.
A busy woman in her new career with the JAG Sports and Education Foundation, Elana spoke to gsport while she was following the ABSA Cape Epic mountain bike endurance race from Knysna to Somerset West, in the Western Province.
Champion Marathon Runner Interview: Elana Meyer, Queen of the Road!
It’s been a while since you’ve done endurance racing professionally, though you look in good enough shape, how do you spend your time these days?
I’m heading a sports foundation, called the JAG Sports and Education Foundation, and I’m the Executive Director, which takes up most of my time, unfortunately (laughs).
It always takes a lot more time setting things up in the beginning, but obviously I’m still passionate about the sport itself, doing stuff outdoors, but at the moment my focus is to get the Foundation up-and-running, and that’s very time-consuming!
What is the intention of the Foundation?
To give the youth the opportunity to do sport. The one focus of the Foundation will be to implement running programmes, just because it’s an easy sport to get into, you don’t need facilities, you don’t need a lot of equipment.
We also form partnerships with other sporting Foundations, with Jacques Kallis and his Cricket Academy, with Brad Bing and the Sporting Chance Foundation, so there’s a lot of different sports involved.
The focus is the children, the youth, to give them sporting opportunities, and to improve their lives.
Why do you think sport is important for kids?
It’s a world-wide trend that kids are sitting more and more with the computer, playing PlayStation, and they are just getting less and less active. At a very basic level we will encourage kids about the health benefits of doing a sport.
It’s not to create world champions, if that comes along through the process, it will be fantastic, but it really is for the health aspect.
I’ve been in the sporting world for over 25 years, and the amazing thing about sport is that it transforms people’s lives, it gives opportunities beyond the sport.
There are principles that you can learn from running, that you can apply in all the different aspects of your life. Sport is just the vehicle.
The gsport theme for April is Responsibility: What does the term mean to you?
I think that everyone should be responsible for themselves, for their life and health-status, but due to South Africa’s history, it’s not a born and bred part of every South African, and I think the responsibility now is to give everyone the same opportunities, the same world of choices.
The system that we had, a lot of people didn’t have a lot of choices, and now the people have the choices, but they don’t know about it. The responsibility now is to ensure that everybody knows they have a choice, and they are responsible for their own choices.
What role has the concept of Responsibility played a role in your life?
In total, I’m the one responsible for the shape I’m in at the race. That’s just a very personal thing. A lot of time, team sports lack that.
In running, you’re very exposed out there on the track running, at the Olympics or at any level. You are responsible for every part of your preparation, for your health…, for the amount of sleep you get.
Because running is such an individual sport, you have to take responsibility for every aspect of it.
In team sports, the athletes don’t take the same sort of responsibility, compared to an individual sport. That can rob the team of performing at an even higher level.
What does it take to be a champion, and what did it take for you to succeed as a champion?
For me, the most important thing is attitude. You can have a fantastic goal, you can work hard, but if you do it with the wrong attitude, you’re not going to succeed.
If you can package it all with a great attitude, you will succeed. But sometimes the attitude can be a little bit tough. It’s tough out there, when you compete on the highest level, internationally.
It’s not always easy. A lot of people see you performing, and think it’s easy. But a lot of the work you’ve been doing, it’s not easy, it’s a sacrifice.
Obviously, for different sports, you need different genetic qualities. One of the beauties about the distance runner is that you need the basic genetics to be able to run, but the bulk of the outcome will come from what you put in.
I wasn’t a champion from the start (laughs). I was beaten by Zola Budd by huge margins when I started, but because I was prepared to work very hard over a very long period of time, I could succeed.
Yes, you need the basic talents, you need the basic genetic make-up to be able to cover distances over 10 kilometres, but a big part of it comes from goal-setting, going where you want to go, and then backing it up with training and hard work.
If you could benefit from hindsight, what would you have done differently in your career?
That’s one thing that I never do (laughs). I’ve had a fantastic career, a lot of highlights, a lot of huge disappointments, but what I’ve learned from disappointments was as valuable as what I learned from my wins.
Looking back, I’ve got no regrets. Obviously there are races I didn’t perform the way I wanted, but even that I wouldn’t change. It’s a powerful part of who I am today.
If I could add advice, it would be to absolutely utilise your opportunities. Sometimes you think these opportunities will come along again, but for me, if you miss an opportunity now, you’re never ever going to get the same opportunity again.
It’s like an empty seat on a plane, it’s a missed opportunity, and it’s never going to be filled.
How much have conditions changed since you started out?
A lot of things probably got harder, and a lot of thing probably got easier. I remember my first season of international racing, and I arrived at the foreign airport received with a big press conference, with 99% of the questions being political questions, and one or two would be sporting questions.
That was hard, because, you know, it wasn’t necessarily a choice the country you grow up in, and as a sports person, try to explain why you’re here, it was difficult.
Now it’s more pure sporting opportunities, and now you can focus on your sport. What’s more difficult now is that there is now a lot of other competition or sport.
When I grew up, it was cool to do sport, it was a popular activity. Now sport is not always that cool anymore, the extreme stuff if more cool.
It was different challenges 20 years ago, to those faced now.
South Africa: why do you love it?
There’s a handful of reasons why I absolutely love it, this is where my family is, where my friends are, I think we’ve got a country with fantastic weather, with beautiful nature, and with a diverse nation.
For me, there’s a lot of factors that play a role in me loving, not only South Africa, but Africa. It’s in my heart, that’s who I am, and I can’t ever see myself not being a part of the challenges and solutions here.
To read more about Elana Meyer, and her many achievements, please logon to Elana Meyer’s website, or, to more about her professional activities, please view the JAG Sports and Education Foundation website.