For as long
as she can remember Geraldine Pillay has always loved athletics. In fact when
she was in Grade 1 she took up sprinting and instantly fell in love with the
excitement of being on the track. But it was only in her early twenties that
she realised she could make a career out of being a sprinter, and that is when
her real journey in sport began…
Now at the
age of 30, Geraldine is aiming for gold at this year’s Beijing Olympics in
August where she plans to race in the 100m and 200m sprints. Her preparations
started four years ago after a disappointing Olympic showing in Athens when she only
qualified for the 100m sprints and then failed to go past the first round.
Geraldine didn’t let her devastating performance in Athens distract her from her greatest
ambition, which is to be the best she can be at whatever she does. She started
planning for Beijing immediately after that, and
two years at the Commonwealth Games in Australia her perseverance and hard
work paid off when she became the first South African sprinter to win silver in
the 100m and bronze in the 200m sprints at a Commonwealth Games.
2006, Geraldine took her preparations to a whole new level when she left for Jamaica
to train with some of the world’s best athletes including Asafa Powell and
Bridget Foster-Hylton. She returned to South Africa in June last year and
a few months later joined the High Performance Centre where she is currently
It’s been a
challenging journey for this passionate South African, but it’s not over yet,
despite some people suggesting that maybe its time for her to retire. Inspired
by the great Frankie Fredericks and our very own Oscar Pistorius, Geraldine has
her sights set on an electric showing in Beijing, and judging by the work she
has put in and the experience gained over the years, there is no reason why
shouldn’t return with Olympic Gold!
She is a fun
loving, easy going woman, who loves life and is deeply embraces her femininity.
Geraldine admits that although she wants to run as fast as men, she will always
be proud of being a woman. She hopes to
be a role model to every young person in South Africa, female and male, from
all walks of life, and to be the epitome of success.
gsport’s February 2008 gSTAR, Olympic-bound Geraldine Pillay!
Geraldine, how are you enjoying the experience of
being based at Pretoria’s
High Performance Centre?
when I relocated to Pretoria,
I first trained at the High Performance Centre (HPC) for about two years. Then
I went abroad and trained there for a little bit. When I was asked to train in South Africa
again by the Federation (Athletics South Africa), the HPC seemed to be the best
option because of the friendships I built with the doctors and the physios and
the training conditions and the weather was also a big draw card. I came back
to the HPC in October last year. So far it’s good; it’s a stress-free
environment where you are constantly surrounded by athletes and people who love
athletics and love sport.
Tell us about your trip to Jamaica. What was it like to train
I went in
October 2006 and I stayed there until June 2007. It was a plan I’ve had
mind since the beginning of 2006 but because it was my first time
through the Caribbean, and I didn’t know what to expect, I was a bit
skeptical. Then I spoke to my coach Stephen Francis, who told me about
conditions, and I spoke to some of the athletes training there and I
give it a try. It was a great experience, especially training with
athletes like Asafa Powell, Jerome Simpson, and Bridget Foster-Hylton;
it was a
learnt so much from my coach as far as planning and structuring your program
and peaking at the right time, as well from the athletes as well; how to
prepare for big races, like Golden Leagues, Olympic Games, and World
Championships – how to deal with the stress of competition and expectations of
It was a
great learning curve for me. I came back to South
Africa and I was planning to go back to Jamaica to do the final
preparations for Beijing but now that I am back in South Africa I can
determine how much I have learnt because I have to apply it.
I am still
in contact with the people in Jamaica.
When I get stuck there is always an open line of communication which is nice. I
am going to join them in Italy
in June, which is two months before the Olympics, just to do some fine tuning.
It was a great experience, something I will remember as an athlete. I matured
as an athlete. I learnt a lot about my event, the sprint, and I love the
island. People are very friendly and very laidback.
Where does your passion for sprinting come from?
when I was in the first grade. We’d have our inter-school sports event at
school at the beginning of the year and I just saw how exciting it was and how
excited the spectators got when people started running over 50metres and
experience of running wasn’t a good experience because I wasn’t the fastest in
the school and I had to go to the inter-school event as a reserve but in my
mind I thought I was going to run but I had to wait for people to get injured
or pull out before I could run.
I ended up
not running that day but just seeing the excitement, how nice it was to run,
and everybody knew who the fastest boy or girl was. I realised I didn’t want to
be a spectator again, I wanted to be part of the excitement, I wanted to be
part of the sprinting hype.
Was that the day you decided you wanted to make a
career out of athletics?
decision came later, after I finished school. I associated track and field with
school. After I finished matric I thought to myself now I have to get a proper
job, and I haveto go study, and you have to go study for something, so you can
earn a living. My high school teachers always encouraged me to further my
career as an athlete. They tried to convince me that I could travel the world
and make a lot of money.
In my mind
it wasn’t a career – a career is where you have to work a 9-5 job, that’s a
real occupation, not running around. So, I stopped running for about 3-4 years,
I studied information technology at Peninsula Technikon, and I worked as a
junior programmer at Caltex.
time, they would have the Engen Grand Prix series in South Africa. One day they had a coaching
clinic in Cape Town, at the time I was still in Cape Town, and one of the
coaches invited me to the coaching clinic.
I went to
the clinic and I had the opportunity to meet Frankie Fredericks, Marion Jones,
Michael Johnson, and all the US
athletes who flooded the country at the time. It was a great experience and I
saw all these athletes who actually competed with me at school level. They were
running and there were cameras, photographers, and journalists there – it was a
Friday evening I got a complimentary ticket to see the meet at Green Point
Stadium. That was a turning point… I went there and I saw 30 000 people come
out to watch track and field. I saw the athletes on the warm up area and I saw
all these South African girls lined up to race. It was amazing. It was an
But I knew
something was lacking. I am standing there, I see all these athletes coming
past me, doing their victory laps, people clapping and asking for autographs. I
thought to myself Geraldine once again you should not be a spectator, you are
supposed to be on the track running, representing South Africa or representing
whatever club in South Africa.
So I would
say 1999 at the age of 22 was the turning point where I decided I can actually
make this a career because I saw all these other athletes who were professional
athletes, that was their occupation. There I was standing being a spectator
instead of competing. So I thought I’m going to give it a try, I’m going to
find myself a coach and become a professional athlete.
From there I
started, I went to UWC (University
of Western Cape) track
and field club, I joined there. At that time I said to myself I want to be one
of those athletes at the Engen Grand Prix series – that was my immediate goal.
To cut a long story short, the following year I was invited to the Cape Town
Engen Grand Prix Series. I didn’t do too well because it was my first year
actually back training. That year I came fourth at the National Championships
in the 100m.
To only have decided at the age of 22 to take
athletics seriously, you’ve done incredibly well!
is saying you are 30 years old, when are you retiring? Right now retirement is
not even on my mind because I haven’t been through the rigorous training that
all these young athletes have been through. I basically started with proper
training in 2002 when I came to Pretoria.
Even when I
was in Cape Town training, the coaches that I had back then, they were not up
to scratch with training techniques and I would train three times a week, not
every single day like now. As an athlete I am still very young because I
haven’t been through strenuous training.
What have been some of your fondest highlights in
your athletics career to date?
Games in 2006 when I won silver in 100m and bronze in the 200m. It was an
amazing feeling to stand on the podium and receive the medal and just see all
the South African flags in the stadium. It was the first time at the
Commonwealth Games that a South African sprinter had won silver in the 100m and
a bronze in the 200m so that was a great experience. At the time it didn’t hit
home that I had achieved something amazing, but when I come home I realised
what I had achieved.
As an athlete, how do you deal with challenges that
come your way?
difficult but I guess you learn as you go along how to deal with it maturely.
Sometimes we can crack and then your performance will suffer. Right now I just
want to focus on myself and the controllables, the things I can control, my
environment, my training, and my health.
competitors are always going to be there and they are also training very hard.
Challenges like the media, they will always write something so the things I can
control is my performances so I am going to try and perform to the best of my
ability to limit the challenges.
How do you feel about the current state of women’s
athletics in South Africa?
What can be done to further improve the standard?
I think that
we have a lot of room for improvement. First of all we have to go back to the
school level because track and field especially among the girls, they don’t
feel feminine if they are an athlete. They don’t feel cute when they’re running
and I think because of that we don’t have a lot of good female athletes at that
You have to
create the desire for a young girl to want to be a good athlete and to pursue a
career in running or jumping, like any other career. If we have more female
athletes, the standard will definitely improve because right now there is only
one person running well, there is only one girl jumping well, or swimming well.
There is no
real competition but if you have seven or eight girls doing exceptionally well,
then I think the standard and the image of women in sport will also be much
better. So I think we have to go back to the schools and encourage young women
to pursue a career in sport and to tell them you don’t need to feel less
feminine than the person who is not doing sport.
I think it’s
about empowering the women as well; you have to be a strong person to go out
there and project that it is cool to be sporty. As women we can be a force to
be reckoned with in the world of sport.
What are your goals for 2008?
I want to
stay healthy; I want to go through the season as healthy as possible. Improve
on my personal best times in both the 100m and the 200m. The South African
record in the 100m is something I would like to get under my name and then of
I want to improve on my last performance at the Olympics. It was atrocious; I
didn’t advance to the second round. I felt out in the first round and it was a
combination of nerves and I didn’t have enough experience at that level and I
didn’t know how to handle things.
But now that
I have gained a lot of experience, I’ve been to an Olympic Games and to three
World Championships, I’ve competed against the best in the world and even
trained with them, I think I’m more confident and well prepared, and capable of
holding my own on the track.
Have you qualified yet for the Olympics?
criteria of ASA is that you have to qualify in the year of the Olympics. Our
season started last Friday and then we have until the National Championships,
which is in March in Stellenbosch. If you don’t qualify there, we go to Europe in June, and then I think you have until July to
run the qualification.
My goal is
to run the qualification in the South African season and then I can be more
relaxed because otherwise you are running around, chasing times, and the more
you try to run faster, the more stressed you get.
What are your Olympic aspirations?
In Athens I only qualified for the 100m so my aim is to do
both the 100m and the 200m in Beijing,
and I am aiming for gold. My preparations started about four years ago after
the last Olympics. I was devastated coming back home to South Africa with nothing, not even
a semi-final or a final position. Now I am more mature and I’ve made a lot of
sacrifices in order for me to be at a point where I can say I am ready, I can
compete with the world’s best.
Who do you see as your biggest threats in Beijing?
I would say
the Jamaican athletes; Veronica Campbell who won the World Championships last
year and she was third in Athens
in the 100m. Then of course there are some of the American girls but the year
of the Olympics you can’t really say because so many unknown athletes come out
and upstage the favourite. I think the best thing to do is just to see that you
are in the final cos once you are in the final anything can happen.
Describe your typical training day?
train twice a day – Monday, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. It would
normally start at 8am with a track session that will last an hour and a half to
two hours. After that, I would go for a massage, get something to eat, relax,
and go back in the afternoon for my gym session from 3-4pm.
Who are your sponsors?
Right now I
am sponsored by Best Med and Tuk Athletics Club and Adidas.
What is the best career advice you’ve been given?
believe in yourself and never stop dreaming. Perseverance is the key.
Who are your favourite sports stars and how have
they inspired you?
Ottey (Jamaican-born Slovenian track athlete). She is about 47 years old and she
is still competing. Then I would say Frankie Fredericks because he was such a
humble person on and off the track. He has inspired a lot of African athletes
because of his achievements on the world stage. He’s been a great inspiration
to me as well as all the other South African athletes, and because we know him
on a personal level. He’s always ready to give advice and help where he can.
What are your favourite spectator sports?
day international cricket, and rugby, occasionally
gsport strives to celebrate femininity. How would
you define femininity and what role does it play in your life?
yourself! Even though I am running and would like to run as fast as men, but
I’d like to remain as sexy and beautiful as a female. I still want to keep
that… and not just the outer look, but when I open my mouth and I speak, people
have to know it’s a lady they’re speaking to, without me trying to proclaim
that I am a lady. I have to be one, and my conduct, on and off the track has to
You have to
comfortable regardless of your occupation, whether you’re a CEO of a major
company, or a sprinter, or a reporter, or a presenter. If you’re in a man’s
world, it doesn’t have to mean you have to lose your identity.
What is the best thing about being South African?
that I can speak Afrikaans and nobody can understand me…laughs! The fact that
we have Nelson Mandela and nobody else does. There are so many reasons to be
proud to be South African. We have kwaito music and nobody else has it…
How do you relax?
I spend a
lot of time with friends, either going to movies, go shopping, trying to do as
little as possible.
What inspires you?
inspired by somebody like Oscar Pistorius, who is trying to do something with
his limited ability. That really inspires me, when I see people who are really
trying to become something, to rise above their circumstances. It inspires me
to do even more than I am capable of.
Who are your role models?
Nelson Mandela! My mother who is such a strong woman, who has a lot of
patience, all the virtues I am striving towards.
What advice do you have for women who would like to
follow in your footsteps?
To get in
touch with somebody in their area where there is a running club as soon as
possible. It’s not always going to be smooth sailing. There are going to be
times when you wonder why you are doing it. It is really worth it. You have to
persevere in order to be successful in their sport. Just follow your heart and
follow your dreams. No matter what people say, if it’s not positive, just don’t
listen to them.
What is your greatest ambition?
ambition is to be the best that I can be at whatever I do. To be a true
example, to be a role model to every young person in South Africa, female and
male, from all walks of life, and to be the epitome of success.
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