Lee-Ann Persse did not have an easy sporting career, as she battled mental health and since her retirement from rowing in 2017, she has vowed to talk about her struggles to help other athletes experiencing similar situations.
Persse is currently host of The Girls Only Project podcast as she chats to sportswomen from around the world. They share stories of their struggles as well as triumphs, hoping to support others and let them know that they are not alone in their challenges.
She is also passionate about empowering and inspiring women to play any sport, as she believes that it opens more than just the opportunity of a sporting career but allows athletes to explore and build life-long relationships with people across the globe.
In her 12-year rowing career, Persse highlights competing in numerous local races, the London Olympics in 2012, Rio Olympics in 2016 and World Championships, as her biggest achievements.
She regards her late father – who was an umpire in the local rowing scene – as her biggest supporter and is grateful that he witnessed her winning local races and competing on the global stage until the end of her tenure.
Speaking with Celine Abrahams, Persse gives insight into where her passion for rowing developed, competing on the international stage and the impact of losing her father at the end of her rowing career.
Lee-Ann, how has life under COVID-19 lockdown been for you?
Lockdown has certainly had its ups and downs, but it has also given me time to spend with my mum and younger brother which I may not have done if not for lockdown. I have found things to keep me busy such as online courses, puzzles, exercise and plenty of cooking and baking all helping to keep me sane.
What has been keeping you motivated?
To be honest it hasn’t always been easy to keep myself motivated during this time and I have days when I just want to stay in bed. I am a person who does like to feel like I’m being productive, so this usually forces me to get up and get going most mornings. I know that at the end of the day I can only control what I can control and just taking one day at a time and not thinking too far into the future has helped to ease the anxiety surrounding this unprecedented period.
I was challenged to run 100miles in my garden by a friend during lockdown and it was certainly a challenge that provided me with a lot of perspective as well as gratitude for how lucky I am compared to others in South Africa. This challenge kept me distracted and busy for a few days which certainly helped and the fact we could do it to raise money for others in need of food during this time made this tough challenge well worth it.
“I chat to sportswomen from all over the world and we share our struggles as well as our triumphs hoping to support others to know that they are not alone in their challenges.” – Retired South African Olympic Rower, Lee-Ann Persse
This period has also given me an opportunity to focus on a project close to my heart, The Girls Only Project podcast! I chat to sportswomen from all over the world and we share our struggles as well as our triumphs hoping to support others to know that they are not alone in their challenges.
And, before lockdown I was preparing for the Unogwaja Challenge where we cycle from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg and then run the Comrades. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19 our challenge has been postponed for now and my training wasn’t as easy as beforehand. I mostly run up and down my driveway and I am doing a lot of strength and bodyweight work.
What have you been involved in since retiring from rowing?
I retired from rowing at the end of 2017 but have since started working at Pro Series Indoor and Tayla Sportswear. Things haven’t been easy financially for the company during this period, but we have gone into mask manufacturing as well as continuing with our winter clothing production. We hope that we can find the support to keep the business running during this period.
Where did your passion for rowing come from?
I started rowing at school and just never looked back since then. I really fell in love with the sport from the beginning. The team aspect of it as well as the fact you can row by yourself so you can find a nice balance between team and individual events.
What would you say has been your toughest race?
My toughest races have been the ones that have come with the most disappointment. So, I would say the semi-final at the London Olympics when we didn’t make the final and then we had a disappointing race at the 2014 World Champs. These are the toughest races because of what it took to come back from the disappointment.
What was it like when you first got the opportunity to compete on the international stage?
It was definitely a dream come true to represent South Africa on an international stage. It was also very daunting, and I soon realised that I had a lot of work to reach the level at which I wanted to compete. So as exciting as it was it was also a massive eye opener and reality check.
What are the biggest highlights in your career?
Competing at two Olympic Games is definitely up there on the highlights list. My dad died of a heart attack at the end of 2018 and he was one of my biggest fans, so I have to mention his involvement. My dad was incredibly involved in the local rowing scene as an umpire.
“One of my highlights was that he got to watch me win some races at a local level and just getting to share those moments with him form some of my top highlights.” – Persse speaks on her dad’s involvement in her career
So, one of my highlights was that he got to watch me win some races at a local level and just getting to share those moments with him form some of my top highlights. My family didn’t get to watch a lot of international racing so even though these races were not on the world stage they still hold a special place in my heart because I could share them with him.
Who do you draw your inspiration from?
I tend to draw inspiration from those around me. At the time I rowed I had teammates that inspired me every day by their work ethic and determination. Even now I am surrounded by friends and family that are doing amazing things. It’s not always the biggest feats that are the most inspirational, sometimes it can be something small that not everyone sees but can still inspire.
This period of being at home has given us all time to reflect on our careers, what has been going through your mind about what you have been able to achieve and also what you are looking to change for the future?
During this period, I have actually done a lot of speaking about my career and the struggles I have had with retirement. It has certainly allowed me to do a lot of reflection and because of my retirement struggles I often forget to celebrate what I have achieved and I am really proud of what I have achieved in my sporting career.
It was a great career and it certainly taught me a lot about myself and has helped me to grow as a person even now that I am not competing anymore. Going forward I realise how important it is for me to continue to share my story of my struggles with mental health as well as retirement, as others are experiencing similar struggles and I want them to know that its ok and they are not alone on their journey.
Are you planning to encourage more females to choose rowing as a career path?
At the moment my focus is on encouraging females to play any sport. I am obviously passionate about rowing but just getting girls and women out there and onto the playing fields is where my passion lies.
Sport does not only come with so many opportunities, but it also allows you to meet people who will become friends for life. Being part of a sporting club or team is like having another family and is something really special and I want others to experience that.
Photo 1 Caption: Lee-Ann Persse did not have an easy sporting career as she battled mental health and since her retirement from rowing in 2017, she has vowed to talk about her struggles to help other athletes experiencing similar situations. Photo: Lee-Ann Persse (Instagram)
Photo 2 Caption: Persse is currently hosting The Girls Only Project podcast as she chats to sportswomen from all over the world. They share stories of their struggles as well as triumphs, hoping to support others to know that they are not alone in their challenges. Photo: Lee-Ann Persse (Instagram)