By CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
FARWA Mentoor is a home-grown talent in the true sense of the word.
Born and raised in Portland, Mitchell’s Plain as Francine Skippers, she went on to become South Africa’s most decorated Comrades (89km) and Two Oceans (56km) ultra-marathon runner.
Between 2002-2013 Farwa won 10 gold medals in the Comrades Marathon, and in the Two Oceans Marathon (56km), she won nine gold medals, one bronze and one gold medal in the 21,1km.
Only Maria Bak (11 medals) of Germany has won more gold medals than Farwa.
Frith van der Merwe
Not even Frith van der Merwe has won 10 golds in Comrades. Van Der Merwe won gold in 1988, 1989 and 1991, a silver in 2000 and a bronze in 1987. She pocketed two Bill Rowan medals in 2005 and 2006 (for runners between 7hrs 30min to sub 9hrs). She held the Two Oceans record of 3 hours 30 minutes and 36 seconds in 1989.
Van der Merwe’s 1989 Comrades marathon record time of 5:54:43 in the down run still stands.
Farwa is one of the first former South African Council on Sport (Sacos) athletes to defy apartheid South Africa that girls from anywhere can run on the world stage and be the best. (Jowaine Parrott was the first)
Farwa was not an athlete that thrived in the limelight – she preferred to let her feet do the talking.
She was a top athlete who remained under the radar but her achievements stood out like a beacon of hope for the thousands of young athletes who had watched her accomplishments on television in the comforts of their homes.
Warmed the hearts
Striding past one international athlete after the other, her performances warmed the hearts of the older generation of athletes who had not been lucky enough to compete internationally. The Comrades and Two Oceans are international events.
Mentoor never leaned on international experience or that of the South African establishment. Her achievements came on the back of her ex-husband’s training in the streets of Mitchell’s Plain until her competitive athletics career came to an end.
“Anwar was the one who took me under his wing and provided the daily training programme. I bought into his training methods and he dedicated himself to training me,” said Farwa.
Farwa remembers her former husband being a good athlete, running in the company of SAAAB champions Henry de Grass and Harold Adams.
Mitchell’s Plain club
After his running career Anwar Mentoor formed the Mitchell’s Plain Athletics Club while still a Geography teacher at Spine Road High School in Rocklands, Mitchell’s Plain.
“While I was still an athlete at Spine Road High, Anwar had a group of between 20-30 athletes whom he trained. We did a lot of stamina work on the roads of Mitchell’s Plain and on the nearby sand dunes on the False Bay coastline,” recalls Farwa.
Spine Road, like Glendale High School, is a stone’s throw away from the beach.
Love for athletics
Farwa’s talent was obvious from a young age.
Her love for athletics started at the Eisleben Primary School in Portland, Mitchell’s Plain. There she competed in the girls’ 600m, as the 800m was deemed too far for primary school girls.
She gained her Western Province and South African Primary School colours.
But it was at Spine Road High, given the stature of Western Province Senior Schools’ athletics, that she made a name for herself.
Training under Anwar at the track in Phillipi (an area adjacent to Mitchell’s Plain), she went on to gain Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU) and South African Senior Sports Sports Association (SASSSA) colours in both track and cross country races.
She competed in the 800m and 1500m. Her rivals were Carol Khume of I.D. Mkize High School in Gugulethu and Belinda Nkonzo of Alexander Sinton in Crawford.
“Sjoe, they were tough and worthy rivals on the track, cross country and road races,” said Farwa.
All three athletes gained WPSSSU, WPAAU (the clubs), SASSSA (senior schools) and SAAAB colours – the highest level in the sport at the time under apartheid.
By 1992, Mentoor had completed school and briefly ran for Trafalgar Athletics Club before enrolling at the Songe Teachers’ College in Worcester.
Sports “unity” and international competition were no longer on the horizon, but surprisingly on the doorstep of the majority of South African athletes who were not ready for international sport.
She was no longer running under the South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB), but the South African Amateur Athletics Congress (SAACON). This was an athletics body that mushroomed overnight under the National Sports Congress (NSC), the sports wing of the ANC, who had advocated the readmission of international sport by 1991 when a lily-white cricket team had been dispatched to India.
In 1992, a woefully unprepared “South African athletics team” participated at the Barcelona Olympic Games. Our track athletes floundered, with only Elana Meyer winning a silver medal in the 10 000m.
Mentoor became one of Songe’s top athletes, and while there she met up with some of the athletes of the Worcester Amateur Athletic’s Club.
Kosie Koopman, a marathon champion of Worcester, helped her with distance running.
“I trained with the Worcester athletes, especially Kosie. I did a lot of distance running there,” she said.
She returned to Mitchell’s Plain after qualifying as a teacher at Songe.
As a road runner and cross country athlete her main competition was Jowaine Parrott and Melody Marcus.
She married in 1995 and gave birth to her daughter Fatima in 1997.
Found her niche
In 1998, she was placed third in the Soweto Marathon and won the race in 2001.
She had found her niche in athletics, specifically distance running, which had not been available under the South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB). There were reasons why the Board did not have marathon races for women. The Board did cater for women’s road races up to 21,1km.
Her performances in road races, in the fold of the SAAAB, were astounding. When she was given the opportunity to run internationally post-1992, her performances mushroomed and blossomed on the international stage.
There are just too many highlights to write about.
See full record on http://more.arrs.net/runner/16081/3/date/desc
In 2002, she competed in her first Comrades Marathon. The race was not only a baptism of fire, but she also unnecessarily felt the heat of apartheid, incurring the wrath of a white marshal.
She was an A Seeding, a termed used for the top road runners. This granted Farwa a front-row position in the Comrades, something the marshal should have been aware of.
“I was an A-seeding runner and as such I was to start the race at the front of the field of runners. A marshal, a white lady, did not want me to go to the front of the field, which resulted in an altercation. With the help of former teammates in Sacos, I was able to get to the start of the race. This altercation, a racist one, wasn’t ideal as this was my first Comrades for which I qualified in every sense of the word,” recalled Mentoor.
She came fourth and was the first South African home in the “up run” from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. Mentoor didn’t look back, continuing with a long and distinguished career in the Comrades Marathon.
Farwa remembers her first trip to the Comrades Marathon.
“We had no sponsor so Anwar and I travelled in his Yellow Uno to Durban. Even though I was a fairly good athlete by then, we battled to find sponsors. Mostly, we funded the trips ourselves.”
But her financial position changed after her first Comrades marathon when former Comrades winner Nick Bester of Harmony Gold stepped in to help her financially.
Being able just to focus on her running, she became South Africa’s most decorated ultra-marathon female athlete and one of the best in the world.
First to win 10 golds
She became the first runner and woman to win a record 10 gold medals in the Comrades.
Bruce Fordyce has won nine gold medals.
By 2012, Farwa was the first South African home in the Two Oceans, “a feat achieved five times during the last nine years”.
Farwa has demonstrated, over a long period of time, that home-grown talent can hold their own against the best in the world without the frills and trimmings of modern-day sport.
Farwa and her family now live in Bredasdorp near Cape Agulhas. She has two daughters Fatima, 20, and Kauthar. 17.