New Beginnings for Charlene Potgieter

Charlene Potgieter won the silver medal at the 2012 African Championship. Potgieter with some of the members of SA team at the African Champs, (from left to right) Ansulet Potgieter, Charlene Potgieter, Estie Wittstock, Lynique Prinsloo and Nolene Conrad. Photo: Supplied

It came as a major shock when South African Triple Jump star Charlene Potgieter announced in October that she was retiring from the sport that made her a household name in local athletics.

After all, what makes an athlete at the top of her game give it all up for a new discipline? Potgieter announced that she was giving up triple jump and would be taking up mountain biking. She has had an amazing season this year, breaking a 20-year-old South African record and winning a silver medal at the African Championship.

As hard as it may be for her to give up something that has been her life since she was a teenager Potgieter concedes it was time to let go.

“It was the hardest choice I have ever had to make,” said Potgieter. “You ask yourself, ‘How can I feel this numb about something I’ve wanted to do since I can remember, the one thing that I would’ve given my all to, have given my all to?’”

“And that feeling is the worst to process and make sense of,” she says. “But you have to be all in it… I couldn’t make the kind of commitments that were asked of me, and with that said, I couldn’t see a future for myself in athletics.

She might not be in the athletics scene anymore, but don’t think that this is the last you will hear of the very competitive Potgieter. She is serious about doing well in mountain biking.

In this ranging interview, Potgieter shares her journey from reluctant netball player to aspiring mountain bike queen.

Potgieter has been doing triple jump since she was 15-year-old. Here she pictured competing for the University of Pretoria. Photo: Supplied.Where did you grow up and did you play any other sports in your childhood?

I grew up in Bloemfontein, I had to play a winter sport so I tried Netball and Hockey, and did not like it very much, though, haha!

How old were you when your started triple jump, and how did you get into it?

I was 15-years-old, I started because I had a teacher who said I could get points for the school, and so I had to try it out, I just grew into it!

What were some of your biggest highlights in your triple jump career?

Breaking one of the oldest national records! Representing my country, and getting a Silver medal at the African Champs.

What will you miss most about triple jump?

The training and having the crowd involved. The rush you get when you line up on your run-up, and you get the crowd involved with a slow clap. I will miss the exhilaration after a big jump; I’ve always liked celebrating in my own way after a good jump.

How did you get into mountain biking?

My husband Albertus rides mountain bikes, and I’ve always had a bike. After making my decision I thought I’d challenge myself to do something totally out of my comfort zone. I’m also not really into team sports, and I just like individual sports more.

What are your goals for your new discipline?

Currently there are a few long term goals like to get provincial colours, and SA Championships, but for now I want to enjoy things without putting pressure on myself, which I tend to do easily.

Who are some of the sports people you, look up to and why?

As a triple-jumper, my inspiration came from Olha Saladuha – she is from Ukraine. Also a triple-jumper, she has got really good technique, and she is a very good jumper. I also think Lolo Jones for me is someone I look up to… That woman just never gives up!

Potgieter says she couldn’t have achieved what she has if it wasn’t for the support of her husband Albertus. Photo: Supplied.

Who are the people that have made the biggest impact (outside sport) in your life?

My mom, she has always told me that I’m the best, even though I wasn’t… She was the one who would drive me to physio, rehab, classes, etc. When I was injured (which was a lot), she always encouraged me. When I wanted to give up she would say, “Don’t worry tomorrow the sun will shine again”.

Also, my husband tried until the end to convince me to keep jumping, he has been supportive of my career from the beginning, and I think if it had not been for him I probably would not have come this far in the last two years.

What is the biggest adjustment from triple jump to mountain biking?

The endurance… Hahaha! Need I say more!?

Potgieter has always had a bike and was encouraged to take it up because her husband Albertus also rides mountain bikes. Photo: Supplied.

Have you started mountain biking competitively yet, and if so what are some of the events you’ve done?

I’m on a program right now to get fit for the bike; it’s not something that happens overnight. I haven’t competed competitively, because I’m not even close to where I have to be. I have only had two races, and I’m still working on my mindset, I don’t want to push myself quicker out of the sport than into it.

What keeps you motivated?

I am quite a competitive person, and I think that is the thing that motivates me the most. I like pushing myself to limits which I would not have known are possible.

What do you think needs to happen now to take women’s sport forward?

I think corporates need to step in, especially with individual sport, as they would rather support a team than individuals …. Athletes in Europe – who are not even on an international level – get more support there than athletes who are in South Africa.

Who are your role models?

Growing up, Marion Jones had always been my role model. But I have to admit I don’t really have someone specific now I draw inspiration from all different kinds of people, some famous, others just ordinary people with extraordinary wisdom, and who do extraordinary things.

What is the best advice you have received?

Never give up on yourself, even when everyone is counting on you to fail, use that as motivation, and keep pushing yourself.

What would your advice be to an athlete or normal person who wants to change careers?

A very well-known former South Africa sprinter told me once: “If it doesn’t make you happy, then you should stop”. Life is too short to be unhappy. Never be afraid of the future. Although people are generally afraid of the unknown, it can hold many promises of excitement.

What are some of your interests outside sport?

I like renovating furniture, that’s my big hobby!

How do you balance being married with your hectic training and work schedule?

With the mountain biking it’s a lot easier, as I am not pressured to train at a set time of the day; my work is flexible at times, which helps a lot. My husband trains with me, so over a weekend we make an occasion off it, which means we get to spend time together.


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