Mercia holds her own against the best

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BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS

FORMER senior schools athlete Mercia Smith (Misroll) was able to make a successful transition to senior women’s athletics under the watchful eye and guidance of Robin April.

April was a famous middle-distance champion and record-holder at Hewat Training College in the late 1960’s. He was also the founder of the Spartans and Hewat Athletics Clubs. He served as President of Western Province Amateur Athletics which had been based at the Vygieskraal Stadium, and is a retired school principal.

One of the several Settler-styled houses still to be found in Garden Village.

Today the unified body, Western Province Athletics, is based at the Vygieskraal Stadium.

As a middle distance runner, Misroll was in the good hands of hard taskmaster April.

Intense programme

She tells the stories of how at times she and star athlete Tessa Hefele cut corners while training on April’s watch. This only happened when they were out of sight of April, for example on a long run.

But mostly, they followed his training regimen.

On the track, they could not hide from his intense programme.

Misroll is from Garden Village near Maitland in Cape Town, a close-knit community. It’s a village steeped in history. There is still a number of remaining Settler-styled houses, although a few homeowners have converted the historic houses into double stories.

Mercia Misroll (married Smith) competed at the highest level at school and senior clubs.

She started road running with her siblings Ronald, Ashley, Hymie and Jacqueline while at Kentemade Junior High School.

Parents

Her parents Kenneth and Avril Misroll, says Mercia, were her biggest influencers.

Her brother Ronald was the coach.

“For my father [Kenneth Misroll], running or training as a family was very important. He believed there was safety in numbers which would be a measure of protection,” says Mercia.

She developed into a good runner over time. At Kentemade, her teacher Isgak Majiet spotted her talent.

WPSSSU

“I would train during periods such as religious instruction, guidance, PT and music,” she recalls.

She says her sister Jacky was her fiercest competition at school.

Maximising all the opportunities to get super fit, Misroll was good enough to gain a place in the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union athletics team in 1984.

In fact, she was unbeaten at WPSSSU and SASSSA level, but she would find club athletics altogether a different ball game.

The diploma bears out Mercia Misroll as a double WPSSSU cap.

While at Kentemade she set the WPSSSU girls under 17 1500m record of 4 minutes and 56 seconds, a record which stood until the books closed in 1994.

In 1985, she enrolled at Ned Doman High in Athlone to complete her schooling. Teaching classes at Kentemade stopped at Std 7 (grade 9).

Sharon Klein

She recalls competing against Sharon Klein (by then a big name in the sport) in the girls’ open section at Athlone Stadium in 1985.

But Misroll was more than an athlete … she was also a fine gymnast.

Misroll captained the WPSSSU gymnastics team of five gymnasts who had travelled by kombi for the SA schools’ competition at the University of Durban-Westville in 1988.

7de Laan

She remembers the Boland gymnast Denver Vraagom who had played a role in the popular TV series 7de Laan.

But Misroll’s talent doesn’t end there.

She is trained in First Aid to the level of trauma.

And she has been “seconding” her club athletes, the Pinelands Athletics Club, and athletes from other clubs in ultra-races for the past 12 years. She also works with novice runners at the club.

Mercia Smith gets the much-needed sprint training for the 800m against the 1985 champion sprint champion Shaheeda Majiet.

She also played volleyball and women’s football.

Her husband Wendal Smith is the chairman of Pinelands Athletics Club.

Spartans

While still competing as a school’s athlete in the 1980s, she joined the Spartans Amateur Athletics Club.

“Charles and Anthony Sprinkle, who were my school friends at Ned Doman, introduced me to club athletics in 1985,” says Misroll.

She did not gain a place in the Western Province Amateur Athletic Union (WPAAU, club athletics) track and field team as she got to the club late in the season. Instead, those places, in the 800m and 1500m, went to Hefele and Sharon Klein.

Tessa Hefele

The 1985 season would have been her last as a junior ladies athlete.

The rest of the year, 1985, April took her under his wing. And with Hefele as a training partner, Misroll’s ascendency in athletics was never in doubt.

She was in good company.

“My athletics buddies were Tessa [Hefele] Roslyn Meyer, Charles Sprinkle and Janine Turner,” she says.

Valda Booysen-Ford was regarded as the top women’s middle distance runner in the 1980s.

She found club athletics a better place for athletes.

Valda Booysen

“At Spartans, you had Willie Davids and Mr April, and some top athletes with whom one could train. While at school, I had to train with my brothers,” she says.

As a first time senior runner in 1986, she “ran” into champion middle-distance runner Valda Booysen (Ford) of the South Peninsula Amateur Athletics Club.

Misroll did pretty well as a first-time senior ladies athlete.

Selection

Booysen, Klein and Misroll made up the WPAAU selection for the senior ladies 800m and 1500m athletes to the South African Amateur Athletic Board’s (SAAAB) Track and Field meeting in Paarl in 1986.

Klein won the 800m in 2 minutes and 15 seconds on the clay track of the Dal Josafat Stadium. Misroll was second and Booysen third.

Absorbing battles

Booysen then won the 1500m in 4 minutes and 51,9 seconds, Misroll was second and Klein third.

The three athletes had had some absorbing battles in 1986, particularly at the University of the Western Cape athletics meetings.

“Valda [Booysen] was my toughest opponent and she never gave you an easy race,” says Misroll.

Misroll also participated in the Halt Road Mile in Elsie’s River, competing against Hefele and Klein.

Mercia and Wendal Smith are still active in athletics at the Pinelands Athletic Club.

She also remembers running in a pair of Hi-Tec shoes meant for walking in rough terrain.

Quit athletics

She quit competitive athletics in the late 1980’s because increasingly she had found difficulty in getting to the Vygieskraal Stadium from Garden Village.

There was and still is no direct transport from Maitland to Athlone.

“To get to the Vygieskraal Stadium on time, I had to take a roundabout route by train or rely on other people to get me to practice. My dad was the sole breadwinner in the family,” she says.

Ironic

Her decision to quit because of distance is in a peculiar and strange way ironic.

Misroll, in later years, competed in 100km road races, a distance much longer than the trip to the Vygeiskraal Stadium from Maitland.

The race had been run over a 10km loop in Three Anchor Bay.

“I won a silver medal in 2008 and a bronze in 2009,” says Misroll proudly.

Main reason

Perhaps her main reason for quitting was apartheid.

“Apartheid deprived us of many things. We couldn’t make a career out of athletics as we had to pay for everything, and we couldn’t compete internationally,” she says.

Jean-Pierre Misroll

Internationally at the time, she followed the career of middle-distance runner, the American Mary Decker.

Locally, she kept an eye on Zola Budd (Pieterse) and Elana van Zyl (Meyer).

Misroll had a son by the name of Jean-Pierre who was a talented runner. His life was cut short by a motor vehicle accident in 2015. He was 21.

5 thoughts on “Mercia holds her own against the best

  • May 5, 2019 at 9:42 pm
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    Dear Publisher,

    Mercia is truly a remarkable woman and athlete. She is very good as a coach, with vast knowledge and had apartheid not denied her opportunities, she would have been on an international level.

    She is truly a remarkable athlete, coach, and mentor. Thanks for sharing this wonderful piece of history.

    Reply
  • May 5, 2017 at 11:41 am
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    Dear Publisher, I have fond memories of Mercia. An awesome athlete.

    Reply
  • May 4, 2017 at 1:55 pm
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    Dear Publisher, This is an excellent reminder of great athletes we had and who are still actively involved in motivating others. – Mercia I Williams

    Reply
  • May 4, 2017 at 8:49 am
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    Dear Publisher, I love reading your articles! There is a rich history of athletics within our communities. I’m inspired by your story Mercia, well done!

    Reply

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