Cathy Freeman’s run stirred up Ruwayda’s sprinting days

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BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS

“I WAS given a ticket by my brother and his family to watch her race at the Sydney 2000 Olympics; a consolation prize for “missing out” on international competition. “

The Olympics gave Ruwayda Noor (married Henri) the opportunity to watch the darling of Australian athletics Cathy Freeman line up in the women‘s 400m final.

Ruwayda Henri of the South African Training Colleges pips Sharon Hanslo of Western Province in the senior ladies 100m race.

“I felt every bit of the build-up, the expectation of the crowd and the exhilaration of winning. It was marvellous and something I will never forget,” recalls Ruwayda.

Freeman, of course, had run into the nation’s heart by winning the 400m in a hooded bodysuit to tumultuous cheering throughout the race.

Sydney Morning Herald

The Sydney Morning Herald wrote: “Freeman carried the Australian and Aboriginal flags in a victory lap around this great stadium and nobody could deny her the right this time to do it. She had lit the cauldron in one act of reconciliation. Last night we saw another such act.”

The paper further wrote: “When the gold medal was presented at 9.17 [the time], Freeman’s face moved with great emotion one moment, and utter bliss the next.

Sprint ace Ruwayda Henri of Wentworth High School gets ready for training in preparation for her inter-schools meeting.

She sang the national anthem with the biggest accompanying choir ever assembled in Australia. Then she took the bouquet of Australian flowers to her mother, Cecelia, whose face was wet tears of pride and joy.

“Who knows where last night’s story began.”

Ruwayda’s story

For Ruwayda, her story began at Epsom Road Primary School’s inter-house athletics meeting in the 1960s at the Greyville racecourse in Berea, Durban, at a time when South Africa had already been isolated from international competition.

“My mum was the guest of honour at the inter-house meeting. She had to congratulate the winning athletes and hand over the trophies and certificates. This parental support of the school athletics provided the first impetus and inspiration in athletics. By then already I knew I was a pretty good athlete,” says Ruwayda.

Wentworth High School

She maintained her interest in the sport at Wentworth High School in the early 1970s by which time she was a recognised sprint champion.

“At 13 years old, I participated in the older divisions sprints and won those as well. When I broke the South African Senior Schools Sports Association girls’ under 17 100m record, I started to take athletics a bit more seriously. At club level, I realised that the other coaches were using their best athletes and various strategies to beat me or the records that I had set.”

Ruwayda Henri and her family left South Africa in 1986 and live in Australia.

Her company at senior ladies level included Western Province track stars Sharon Alexander, Sharon Hanslo, Denise Haupt and Boland’s Loretta Jeneke.

Sprint records

Hanslo had broken the girls under 17 100m record of Henri at the SASSSA champions in the old Transvaal (Johannesburg), the same championships at which Henri smashed both the girls over 17 100m and 200m records.

Henri’s performances on the track had been noticed by the former SA sprint high school boys and senior men’s sprint champion, Ismail Collier who spotted her talent and roped her in to the Reservoir Hills Amateur Athletics Club.

Ismail Collier

“Ismail Collier noticed my performance at the Natal School Championships and offered to be my coach. Not only was he a strong mentor, a disciplined and respected athlete himself, he raised me from a runner to an athlete. Ismail supported me on so many levels. I was treated the same as the boys when it came to hard work (the group that I trained with were all male). He set the example for others to know that I should always be treated as an equal but with respect.”

Ismail Collier and Mohammed Paleker
Ismail Collier, left, is a former SA schoolboy and senior men’s sprint champion who later helped coach Ruwayda Henri. The WP athlete is Mohammed Paleker.

*Next week we bring you, Ruwayda’s a copybook of Wilma Rudolf, the rest of the coaches who played a role in her athletics life, her record-breaking runs and why she and her family left South Africa.

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