THROWING the ball from base to base in softball was how Leigh-Ann Naidoo discovered her talent as a star javelin thrower at the age of 14.
Naidoo has been playing softball since age 10 for the Spartans Softball Club at the William Herbert sports ground in Wynberg, Cape Town.
“I played in one of the senior teams and could throw a ball pretty well. I also played soccer – the first girl to do so at William Herbert from when I was around 10 years old. I played for Ashford Athletics club until I was about 14 years old. I was a pretty good kicker too,” recalls Naidoo.
She attended St Anthony’s Primary School in Heathfield, Cape Town, and tried out for long jump: “I did a little bit of long jump at primary school but wasn’t very good. And at sprinting Bridget Minnaar always beat us all!”
It was during her high school years at Heathfield High, a school strong in athletics, that she would encounter some of the finest athletics coaches – not that she did not have the finest coach in her home she grew up.
Ismail Collier (incorrectly spelled over the years as Kolia/Kohlia), a teacher and coach at the school, was coached by Leigh-Ann Naidoo’s father Derrick Naidoo.
So little Leigh-Ann was in good hands.
It was Collier, a fantastic sprint champion and record holder of the mid-1970s, who discovered the javelin talent of Leigh-Ann and had a great influence on her athletics career.
“In terms of sport, I would say Ismail Collier had a great influence on me, who was both my coach at high school but also my fictive father. My dad, Derrick Naidoo, had coached Ismail Collier who went on to run an Olympic qualifying 200m time. I heard some stories about that from my dad. Ismail Collier was the one who nurtured me and selected the events I was best suited for and then trained me,” she says.
“I had some really good coaches in Ismail Collier and Toya Adams.”
In great company
Naidoo says it is hard to know whether she had raw talent or whether she had good coaches or a combination of both.
Collier was also training a range of other athletes at Heathfield High who had gone on to gain provincial and national colours, including Shamielah Davids (sprinting), Mitz Isaacs (high jump), Kaashief Toefy (javelin, shot put, discuss), Faiz Osman (sprinting), Colin Francke (middle distances), and many more.
“Collier really influenced many, many people – probably one of the best athletics and volleyball coaches this country has ever seen. He was able to create and nurture amazing athletes and players with very little resources,” Naidoo says.
She actually started throwing javelin, shot put and discus before learning how to play volleyball properly.
School athletics meetings were not sufficient for athletes to sharpen their skills level at a particular discipline, so club meetings at the Vygieskraal Stadium and at the University of the Western Cape provided ample opportunity for athletes to do so.
Many of her school buddies, provincial and national buddies, and those mentioned already, like Odessa Krause, Cheryl October and Bronwyn Bok and Noreen Julie benefitted from the club athletics meetings.
“I heard about club athletics through Mr Collier, I think,” says Naidoo. “There were also a number of Heathfield High learners who were competing both at school and club level.
“Odessa Krause used to rip up the competition every year with huge gaps between her and the rest of the competition over the shorter sprints (100m and 200m),” she enthuses.
Star javelin thrower
Naidoo was herself, of course, the star javelin thrower at high school between 1990 and 1994 and she puts a high price on schools athletics.
“High school athletics was an opportunity for athletes from poor and working class communities to travel across South Africa to compete at a provincial and national level. It was structured in a way that athletes were able to live with and share space, food, conversation with people from different parts of the city and country. It was a huge learning experience for me and I treasure those memories even as they were also fraught with issues,” recalls Naidoo.
She held multiple javelin records at Heathfield High, at the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU) and at the South African Senior Schools Sports Association level (SASSSA).
In her second year at high school, aged 14, she went into the WPSSSU record books with a distance of 36,80m – only a year after being discovered as a javelin thrower!
She held further records in the subsequent age groups and at SASSSA level.
Naidoo met a number of senior schools friends, such as Krause, Stephen Cloete (Livingstone High), Shamiela Davids and Colin Francke of Heathfield High when she was selected to the Western Province Amateur Athletics Union (WPAAU).
Strong political upbringing
Incredibly, Naidoo never followed international javelin throwers, not even the Pole Petra Felke, who was the 1988 Olympic champion, or Silke Renk of Germany, the 1992 Olympic gold medallist.
“I never oriented myself towards international athletics or athletes. But I was influenced and impressed by Kaashief Toefy and especially by Natasha Pretorious (Doren) who was a senior javelin thrower when I was at school,” says Naidoo.
Naidoo, born in 1976, the year of the country-wide student unrest in South Africa, has had a strong political upbringing while growing up in front of her parents.
The political beliefs and philosophy of her dad, Derrick Naidoo, have a strong foundation in the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Her mother, Venetia, worked with political activist Neville Alexander at the South African Committee on Higher Education (SACHED). From 1997, her mother administered Alexander’s Project for Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA).
Leigh-Ann graduated with a master’s degree researching the role of pedagogy in the BCM in the 1960s and 1970s in South Africa.
Naidoo is currently working on a doctorate in anthropology.
More than just the game
Naidoo has nothing but praise for sports under the umbrella of South African Council on sport (Sacos) during the sports isolation years:
“The level of sports was high despite the few resources we had and the lack of opportunity to compete at international level. The notion that international competition is the main criteria that drives playing levels up is untrue. The level of volleyball, for example, was almost equal to what we see today with increased international exposure and supposedly more qualified coaches.
“Sport was about more than just the game. It was an opportunity for people to learn about each other’s lives and also to learn about some of the oppressive systems that existed in South Africa prior to 1994. The focus of Sacos sport was to develop a basic level of sport participation which was well-organised and structured. What resulted was that the exceptional players and athletes were produced out of a focus that wasn’t oriented towards international competition. National competition was a motivating factor but it wasn’t the only one,” says Naidoo.
Does she follow local and international athletics?
“No, unfortunately I don’t follow sport that much anymore. I was happy to hear that Odessa’s son (Wayde van Niekerk) was doing so well internationally – not surprising at all! I also know too much about the post-apartheid sports mess that it frustrates me to watch what is happening, knowing the behind the scenes stories,” says a disappointed Naidoo.