It is five years since Justine Palframan won 400m gold at the World Student Games in Gwangju, South Korea, and nearly 10 years since she broke the South African 400m youth record in the Zone 6 Games in Swaziland. This seasoned athlete is looking to achieve another major high as she eyes Olympic qualification.
Covid-19 put paid to Palframan’s dreams of participating on the European circuit and working towards qualifying for the Olympics for her second appearance at the showpiece event.
At the same time, lockdown has given her time to focus on her wellbeing after a mental health scare in 2019. Palframan is now ready to resume her journey to Tokyo, and after an active break, is prepping for the 2021 season.
She was born into an athletic family where her mother was a swimming coach and her father was an athletics coach. One of seven children, brought up in rural Eshowe in Kwazulu-Natal, Palframan dabbled in all sport, before settling on sprinting.
In 2008, she made the South African team for the first time when she competed at the Southern Region Youth Champs after having tried her hand at various sports growing up, and she also swam for KZN.
Palframan reveals that it was her father who spotted both her and her sister’s track abilities, but at the time, she was not at her best until she was in matric and began to solely focus on her athletics career.
She began to flourish on the track as she went on to break youth records on the continent and internationally.
As she celebrates 12 years of running in the green and gold for South Africa, Palframan reflects on her journey with Celine Abrahams.
Justine, thank you for taking time out for gsport. How’s life been for you over the past few months as we have been facing some uncertain times with Covid-19?
Life has been strange. It has been different, but it has also been a great time to slow down and focus on what is important in your life, so I was grateful to get to spend more time with my fiancé. I cope better with certainty, so I did find it difficult when we didn’t know what was happening with our athletics. Are we still going to compete, is the Olympics happening? Once we knew it was being postponed, we had meetings with our coach to plan the way forward. This time has been overwhelming and I have struggled to stay motivated but taking it one step at a time and using small daily goals so I feel like I am achieving something each day has helped me a lot.
How are you keeping fit?
I am lucky to be living on a farm just outside of Stellenbosch, so I have a lot of space to move. We have been jogging, doing some hills and going for nice long walks. I was fortunate enough to be given some dumbbells, a medicine ball and a kettle bell so was still able to do gym work, other than body weight. At the moment I just finished my active break, and now we have just started with general prep for the 2021 season. Basic gym exercises I can do at home and running sessions around the farm. We want to make sure that by the time we can return to the track we can do so without the increased risk of injuries.
What plans has this pandemic impacted that you were looking forward to accomplishing this year?
It obviously took away our athletics season, we didn’t get to race at SA Champs, the goal was to qualify for the Olympics. We had planned to have a European session before heading to the Olympics, so unfortunately this will all have to wait for next year.
How are you looking to use this time to prepare for the Olympics that have been rescheduled to 2021?
My coach and strength and conditioning coach have planned the way forward, we have just moved into base training. We will just need to adapt training until we are allowed back onto the track and into the gym. I’d like to use this time to focus on little niggles and to be in the best shape possible for next year.
Please tell us about your time at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and how that experience was for you.
It was an amazing experience. It was overwhelming and something I may not have been mentally prepared for, but I am so grateful I got to represent my country at the biggest sporting event and I look forward to doing it again, this time using what I have learnt from the last. I think we all work towards this goal for so long and when the year comes it seems to be the only thing that is ever spoken about, for some it is motivating for others it is overwhelming and may end up putting unnecessary pressure on the athlete.
“I unfortunately put too much pressure on myself in 2016, but looking back I had my family, doctor and coach at the time with me, I got to run for my country and it was a goal I had always dreamt of accomplishing.” – South African Olympian, Justine Palframan
I unfortunately put too much pressure on myself in 2016, but looking back I had my family, doctor and coach at the time with me, I got to run for my country and it was a goal I had always dreamt of accomplishing.
Two highlights I can mention and that bring back so much happiness and pride to be a South African are firstly walking into the stadium for the opening ceremony, singing together before walking out, my heart was happy, we were filled with overwhelming pride. The second highlight was the night of Wayde van Niekerk’s 400m final, I unfortunately couldn’t go to the track as I was racing the next morning, we huddled in the foyer of our building, not just us South Africans, we shared a building with a few other African countries, the excitement, the happiness, there was cheering, all for Wayde, was just incredible, it was such an awesome atmosphere to be a part of.
How did that event change your mindset and perspective of what you wanted to achieve as your career progressed?
What was great about my experience, which was also the worst part of the experience, I had struggled throughout 2016 with small injuries and mentally in the belief I had in myself. I considered stopping with athletics after 2016, but while journeying through my experiences and looking back at Rio, God spoke to me and showed me, if this is what you can do at your worst, imagine what you can do at your best, He showed me that it wasn’t my time to stop yet, that there is more He wants for me on this journey. So, I am grateful for the experience because it gave me the motivation, I needed to pick my head up and keep going.
Growing up, what was your life like and where did your passion for sports begin?
I am from a small town, Eshowe in KZN. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I ran at interhouse, like we all do, and my dad realised, “Hey, my daughters are pretty good at running,” so he took us to trials and so it went. My sister and I both ran for KZN at SA’s, I remember I always came sixth!
We did many sports growing up, we played tennis, hockey, cricket, I remember trying soccer, we did athletics and swimming, I swam for KZN as well. It wasn’t really until matric that I started focusing solely on athletics. My parents were both athletes, my mom was my swimming coach and my dad was my athletics coach. We are a sporting family, so the passion for doing sports and being competitive has always been there, I am competitive by nature, specifically with athletics.
I loved the people at the track, I loved the friends I made, I loved how easy it was and how comfortable and at home I felt on the track, I loved being fast.
Did you always want to be a track and field athlete?
When I was younger, I told my parents I wanted to be the first person to go to the Olympics for swimming and athletics, very unrealistic, but that was the goal. I don’t think I always wanted to be a track and field athlete but when I made my first South African team in 2008, there was no looking back, I knew this is what I wanted.
How has your family supported your career?
My family has been amazing, I couldn’t have gone as far as I have without them, they have been with me every step of the way. They have made sacrifices for us to get us as far as they could. They would drive us from Eshowe to Bloemfontein or Pretoria to compete, without a doubt I know they will be at every SA Seniors, every SA Students and the odd surprise at a grand prix or varsity athletics. My parents saved and my family came to World Juniors in Barcelona to watch me, my dad came to World Senior Champs in Beijing, they were fortunate enough to come to Rio and they came to World Cup in London, I am very lucky to have the family that I have.
What have been the biggest challenges in your career so far?
“I think the biggest challenge came last year when I really struggled mentally, I was overwhelmed in life and tired, financial security was a huge stress, my grandfather passed away. At the same time I had swine flu, I was harassed in my travels, someone broke in when I was home alone, and I was struggling with a hamstring injury, it was one thing on top of another and I couldn’t cope.” – Palframan speaks out about her struggles with mental health.
Injuries will always be there and those are a challenge. I think the biggest challenge came last year when I really struggled mentally, I was overwhelmed in life and tired, financial security was a huge stress, my grandfather passed away. At the same time I had swine flu, I was harassed in my travels, someone broke in when I was home alone, and I was struggling with a hamstring injury, it was one thing on top of another and I couldn’t cope.
Luckily, I have an amazing support system, I have a coach that backed me, I have a great medical team, the best fiancé and amazing parents. I went back home to look after myself. Before the decision to stop my 2019 season and go look after my mental health, I found it especially challenging because I thought I was letting people down, I kept pushing myself, I kept ignoring how I felt and said it would get better. I put my running first, I realised I was in trouble when I couldn’t go a day without a suicidal thought, this is when I decided it was time to look after my mental health no matter the consequences that came from withdrawing from teams. This struggle made me realize how little certain people take in to account the mental health of athletes, a physical injury, such as a hamstring tear is a good enough reason but with a mental injury, you are met with “just be happy and run”.
How have you been able to overcome your challenges, especially when it comes the financial aspects of the game?
I am lucky to have the support of Stellenbosch University, Maties Sport has looked after me well in the years I have been studying with them. Currently I am a Master’s student, I have a part-time job at Bloemhof High school, and I am an athlete, without working and studying I would not be able to run.
“It is getting to the stage in life where I need to weigh up my options, I will eventually need to give up my athletics so I can afford to live.” – Palframan opens up about her financial difficulties to keep her athletics career alive.
My studying covers my sporting costs, such as gym, physio and rehab. My job pays for my rent, electricity, food bills and my coaching fees.
It is getting to the stage in life where I need to weigh up my options, I will eventually need to give up my athletics so I can afford to live.
Last year I was living off the previous year’s athletics winnings, it was stressful not knowing if you can afford to pay for your rent each month or if you had enough money for food, this part-time job has been a blessing and I love my job so I am very grateful for the opportunities I have been given.
Do you think that female track and field athletes are given the opportunities to get the financial/sponsorship backing that they truly deserve?
From my own experience, I do not believe female athletes get the support they truly deserve. In the past I got into the 200m semi-final at World Championships, at the same Championships a fellow male South African athlete also got into the semi-final at this World Champs, I stayed on a clothing sponsorship and he moved onto financial benefits. But, in fairness every situation is different, and we have all had different experiences, another female athlete may have had much better luck with sponsorships, especially financially then I have had.
How do you think female athletes can take it upon themselves to change this situation?
I am not really sure what we can do, because it isn’t really a performance thing, if you look at our female athletes, they are accomplishing great things. Systems need to change, there needs to be a focus on developing female athletes and keeping the younger female athletes in the sport.
With sponsorships, in my opinion, it seems to be about who you know rather than how you perform. A possibility could be, instead of approaching sport brands for hope of sponsorships, we need to consider looking at company sponsorships, specifically female orientated companies who may be looking for ambassadors.
I feel the system as a whole needs to be restructured to identify both promising female young athletes as well as looking after already accomplished female athletes which would obviously help with development, as well as the longevity of females athletics career, in my opinion, female athletes stop competing a long time before there career is actually over.
What have been your biggest highlights so far?
I worked hard and was given many opportunities, but these stand out the most:
- Breaking the South African 400m youth record in Swaziland, Zone 6 Games,
- Breaking the South African 400m junior record in Barcelona, World Junior Championships.
- Being a part of the 4x400m relay team to break the South African record in 2016 at African Champs in Durban.
- Training in Jamaica for 2 months with the Racer’s Track Club.
- Winning the 400m at World Student Games in 2015 in Gwangju, South Korea.
- Competing in the 200m and 400m at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
What are you still aiming to achieve?
I have a 400m time in mind that I would like to achieve before I end my career. I would like to race at one more Olympic Games.
June is Youth Month, who are your favourite young female South African athletes?
Precious Molepo, she runs the 400m in a very impressive time, she is someone to keep watching and I’m excited to follow her career.
It’s exciting to see how the youth athletes are developing, I look forward to seeing what’s next for them.
What advice would you share with other young athletes who are going through difficulties and are on the verge of giving up on pursuing their sporting dreams?
There is ups and downs in every journey, one year you are on top, the next year you are riddled with injuries, the important thing is to know why you do what you do and when times get hard look back at your why. Remember not to just focus on the time, the distance, the position, but to focus on the journey you took to get there, the obstacles you overcame, the fun you had, the friends you made, the places you got to see, and who you are inspiring along the way, we never know who is watching us and who we are helping overcome their own battles. Keep your head up, we are always stronger than we think we are. It’s time to be brave.
Photo 1 Caption: South African Olympian, Justine Palframan, recently celebrated 12 years of running for team green and gold and is still aiming to continue to represent the country as she hopes to qualify for the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year.
Photo 2 Caption: In 2008, Palframan made the South African team for the first time when she competed at the Southern Region Youth Champs after having had her hand in various sporting codes growing up and swam for KZN.
Photo 3 Caption: She was born into an athletic family where her mother was a swimming coach and her father was an athletics coach.
Photo 4 Caption: Palframan reveals that it was her father who spotted both her and her sister’s track abilities, but at the time, she was not at her best until she was in matric and began to solely focus on her athletics career.
Photo 5 Caption: She began to flourish on the track as she went on to break youth records on the continent and internationally. Despite her success, Palframan took a knock when she started to suffer with mental health issues in 2019 and a day would not go by without a suicidal thought crossing her mind. She knew that it was time to take a break and take care of her wellbeing.