A BRAIN haemorrhage, caused by a ruptured aneurysm, cut short a brilliant sports career and nearly claimed the life of star sportswoman Cheryl October.
October was at the top of her game, excelling in high jump and volleyball, when she was struck down by illness on February 3, 1993.
By then she had earned all her Western Province and South African colours at primary and high school, and club level in athletics and volleyball.
First discovered as a sprinter in her last year at Heideveld High School, she collapsed while running the third leg of a relay practice on the school grounds.
“I collapsed while running the last bend in the relay. I was lights out. I woke up in the hospital, battling to open up my eyes. The doctor was at the bedside when I woke up and explained that I had burst an aneurysm in my brain.
“He said ‘I was lucky’,” recalls October.
The bleeding was at the front of the head, the scars still visible physically and emotionally.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself. Mentally I pushed myself and this probably contributed to the injury I had. Sport is not only physical but extremely mental when you’re in the game,” said October, who quietly harboured ambitions of participating in the 1996 Olympic Games.
“Ironically, the mental toughness I had before the head injury knocked my self-esteem and I was not able to pick myself up from that point onwards,” October says. “No one even bothered to look me up or even just give me a word of encouragement,” she adds sadly. “My self-confidence was shattered.”
The young athlete would no longer participate in sport.
Prized high jumper, record holder and champion
October’s eight-year career as a top sportswoman is worth reflecting on.
She was a prized high jumper, record holder and champion, and the successor to the queen of high jumping Tania Brown, whom she greatly admired as person and athlete.
“Tania had the best technique that I have ever seen. She made high jump look easy. I really admired her,” says October.
Sport was in October’s genes.
She attended Willows Primary School in Heideveld, Cape Town where her undisputed talent was discovered by a teacher, the late Henry Claassen.
“Mr Claassen set the bar at 1,2m and told me to clear the bar from a standing jump. I did it, and never looked back,” says October.
October made use of the scissors technique at first, but when she got to high school, she developed the Fosbury Flop from reading about high jump in the library.
She was in the WP senior schools team from under fourteen through to over-17. She held the girls under 14 and 16 high jump records, previously held by Brown.
October remembers the day of her record jump in 1990 with great fondness and pride: “My mother, Magdalene October, sat in the stand near the winning post – the area of the arena where we did high jump. I looked up and saw her there. She looked back at me and smiled. Her presence really inspired me.”
The young talent participated in the girls open for two successive years (1992 and 1993), equalling the South African Senior Schools Sports Association (SASSSA) record of 1,63m. (with A Govender – Transvaal, C Fisher – WP, J Alacaster – WP)
The crème de la crème of ladies high jumping
In 1993, she did not get a chance to jump against her friend, Bronwyn Bock, because of her aneurysm.
Bock was from Westridge High School in Mitchell’s Plain and went on to set a very good height of 1,70m at the Athlone Stadium – a new WPSSSU record in the girls open section. (She later became the Proteas netball captain, sporting more than 50 caps. She obtained a doctorate degree and now lives in Canberra, Australia.)
At club level, October participated against Brown, Claudine Fisher and Nariman Rylands – the crème de la crème of ladies high jumping under the Western Province Amateur Athletics Union (WPAAU).
“I felt club athletics was tougher than WP inter-schools meetings. At school level, I competed against smaller girls who were intimidated by my height. Most stopped jumping at 1,50m. I was jumping 1,60m-1,70m on a regular basis – winning came easily. At club level, though, the best competed against the best, week-in and week-out,” says October.
“It was at club level and to a degree against Bronwyn (Bock) that I felt the pressure to win,” she adds.
At school level, October had Michael Toll (from Spartans Amateur Athletics Club) and Eugene Paramoer who helped to coach her.
But it was a former vice president of the WPAAU, Alex Marshall of Trafalgar Amateur Athletics Club, who snapped her up.
“Mr Marshall approached me at either Athlone Stadium or the track at the University of the Western Cape with an offer to join Trafalgar. I joined the club,” recalls October.
“I picked up a lot of experience at club level, thanks to Mr Toll and Mr Paramoer who would make sure that I was at the club meetings.”
October was a contemporary and close friend of brilliant athletes Leigh-Ann Naidoo (javelin thrower), Odessa Krause (sprinter) and Noreen Julie (sprinter and long jumper), Graham Schaffers, Claudia Fisher, Tania Brown and Nariman Rylands (who were all high jumpers).
October recalls training with Graham Schaffers at UWC: “Training with Graham really improved my technique.”
Schaffers of St Owen’s High School and Spartans was the all-star high jumper of senior schools and senior clubs, holding the SA records on both fronts with a best clearance of 2,15m under the South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB). He has a best of 2,18m – a Western Province Amateur Athletics Association (WPAAA) record.
October admired local athlete Charmaine Gale, the mid-1980s high jumper from Estcourt in the KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa.
October still follows athletics, especially the Para-Olympics and the Diamond League.
‘No Mercy’ volleyball player
Her other love in sport was volleyball.
She was a member of the Saints Volleyball Club and credits the coach, Sean Lewis, for her success at the game.
October and her good friend Leigh-Ann Naidoo of Retreat Volleyball Club were regulars in the WP school and club volleyball teams.
At school level, the renowned sprint champion and good volleyball player Ismail Collier coached her and Naidoo.
“Leigh-Ann and I played volleyball together at provincial level. We were long spikers, but we also had a decent all-round game. I was called ‘No Mercy’, because of my serve and spikes,” said October.
She remembers how, as a junior, she would train with the late Adrian “Gosh” Strijdom at St Theresa’s in Welcome Estate, Cape Town. The venue was the training hub of players from the surrounding areas, including Heideveld and Bridgetown (where Gosh was from).
Injured from top to bottom, October no longer plays any sport seriously or socially.