SHARON Klein ran with the elegance and composure of a Mary Decker – she was even dubbed Mary Decker.
Decker, of course, is the well-known American gold medallist in the 1500m and 3000m World Championship Track and Field meeting in Helsinki in 1983 who is remembered most for her fall with Zola Budd in the 3000m at the 1984 LA Olympic Games – a race won by Maricica Puica of Romania.
In 1985, Klein and another track star Tessa Hefele of Spartans clashed in a race at the Vygieskraal Stadium reminiscent of Decker and Budd.
Klein went down on the last lap of their 2000m race, after the two athletes bumped into each other’s legs. Klein was out of the race and Hefele got up to win the race.
The two athletes continued with their athletics career and their absorbing rivalry in middle distance racing.
Running came naturally
Born and bred in Elsie’s River, Klein attended Elnor Primary School where she first gained Western Province colours in the 80m and 100m sprints.
“I always knew I wanted to be an athlete, running came naturally and one did not require expensive equipment,” says Klein who ran barefooted for most of her athletics career, not out of choice.
“I did not grow up as a privileged athlete, my parents did menial work,” says Klein.
Klein ran all of her races barefooted, including the Paarl Mountain Race (18,4km), cross country races and track events.
In the words of Jowaine Parrott: “In 1984 and 1985 the Paarl Mountain Endurance Race was won by Sharon Klein, who at the time was almost impossible to beat.”
The mountain race was an 18.4km course starting in the main road in Paarl, up the Jan Philips Mountain path and back to the City Hall via the main road again.
Klein also won road races elsewhere.
“When I was in Std 7 (Grade 9) at Bishop Lavis High School I participated in the Samuel Wilkens Memorial 8km road race in Bishop Lavis. I won the race a few times,” recalls Klein.
Sammy Wilkens of Bishop Lavis High School, was one of Western Province’s brightest prospects in the 100m and 200m in 1982. He died in a car accident in the winter of 1982.
His team mate Havilyn Elders of Bellville South High School went on to become one of the big names in the sport.
No money for running shoes
Elders and Klein would become WP teammates in the 1984 and 1985 seasons with Klein still running barefooted.
“My parents could not afford money for running shoes, so Mr Francois Maclons and Mr Ian Rutgers arranged for the school to buy my first pair of running shoes. It was Saucony’s.”
The surname Maclons is also famously attached to cricket. (Fast bowlers Allan Maclons and much later Khulu Maclons.)
Francois and his wife Lucille were founders of the Bishop Lavis Amateur Athletics Club. Ian Rutgers, although a co-founder, is better known for his excellence on the track as a first class sprinter during the 1970s and 1980s.
“I remember Ms Maclons staying up late to make my grey and blue skirts for the senior schools province team,” says Klein.
Rutgers and Maclons also helped Klein with funding for her SA high school colours.
Klein says inter-schools meetings at the Athlone Stadium were the highlight of her community.
“The high schools athletics were the highlights for our community, especially when we were in the A-section against Belgravia and Alexander Sinton. Elsie’s River High was our biggest rival,” recalls Klein.
Klein was the Western Province and SAAAB 1500m junior ladies champion in 1985, the year she set a new SAAAB 1500m record of 4 minutes and 52,1 seconds at the Vygieskraal Stadium – barefooted again!
Klein also held the senior ladies 800m record of 2 minutes 16,3 seconds. Both these records (800m and 1500m) fell in time to Hefele and then to Valda Booysen of the South Peninsula Amateur Athletics Club.
In 1986 at the SAAAB Track and Field meeting in Paarl, Klein won the SA 800m title, with Booysen winning the 1500m.
Hefele won the SA junior ladies 800m and 1500m.
At club level, in the senior ladies’ races, Klein, Booysen and Hefele were at it week-in and week-out with records tumbling and the winner changing hands all the time, until they no longer competed. Hefele competed with the seniors on several occasions because the races offered stiffer competition.
Inspiring athletes and role models
In her matric year, 1986, Klein captained the South African Senior Schools Sports Association’s (SASSSA) track and field team along with the magnificent speedster Craig Steyn of Cloetesville High School in Stellenbosch.
After school in 1986, Klein first attended Athlone Teacher’s College in Paarl and then Bellville Teacher’s College (BTC) in Bellville.
While she was at college, the rector of the colleges (Athlone and BTC) Mr Harry Hendricks bought her second pair of running shoes.
“Mr Hendricks was so proud of me when I broke the 800m and 1500m colleges’ record in 1987,” says Klein of Hendricks, who was also the South African Amateur Athletics Board’s president and a former athlete in the 1940s.
“I was crazy about Mr Hendricks. He was a champion swimmer, wasn’t he? Strict and a fine rector,” says Klein fondly.
Another person who inspired Klein was Colin Anders of Spartans, the champion race walker.
“Mr Colin Anders was such an inspiring athlete (race walker). He was always happy and enjoyed his athletics until the day he passed away. I was at the championships that day in Strandfontein when he passed on,” remembers Klein.
Anders died of cardiac failure while competing at the SAAAB marathon and race walking championships.
By 1987, Klein was a regular champion athlete exchanging 800m, 1500m and street mile titles and records with Hefele.
Klein and Hefele, together with Roslyn Meyer, had a ding-dong rivalry in the junior ladies 800m in 1985.
“Oh, Tessa (Hefele), was a thorn in my flesh, that girl wouldn’t give up,” says Klein.
Later Klein, Hefele, Valda Booysen and Mercia Misroll struck a rivalry that captured middle distance racing on the tracks of the Western Province Amateur Athletics Union held athletics meetings on the peninsula.
Hefele, Klein, Meyer, Booysen, Misroll, Anita Witbooi and a former record holder Lucinda Klaasen of the Elsie’s River Club were the crème de la crème of middle distance athletes prior to unity in 1992.
Illness and removal of kidney
In 1989, Klein, while packing her bags for an SA meeting in Johannesburg, fell ill.
“I felt a stitch in my left side and was rushed to hospital where the doctor removed my kidney,” says Klein.
Prior to feeling the stitch on her left side, Klein had been to the doctor two weeks earlier and was told that the kidney had to be removed.
“I just wanted to run, that is why I packed my bags for Joburg. I hated being sick,” says Klein.
Truth be told, Klein had various kidney infections since age 13 but never really paid any attention to her diagnosis. She had, in fact, had the problem since birth.
“The doctor told my mom that my one kidney has not been functioning properly since birth,” says Klein.
The doctor wanted her to stop running at the age of 13.
She did not.
Instead, Klein went on to gain WPSSSU colours, SASSSA colours and senior WPAAU and SAAAB colours on the track and in cross country races. She was also a formidable road race champion.
After the operation in 1989, Klein stopped running.
Comrades and Two Oceans
Some years later she started running again and completed the Comrades and Two Ocean ultra-marathons. In between she completed standard marathons, 10km, 15km and half marathon races.
She left teaching because of the kidney operation and works for a financial service group.
Although Klein is no longer active in running, she follows most of the IAAF athletics meetings – particularly the Diamond League – and never misses the Boland athletics meetings.