BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
THE story of Shawn Abrahams, a young man who shot to prominence from the dusty streets of Belhar near Cape Town airport to competing on the best athletics tracks in Europe, is best described in one word: TENACITY!
Starting out in 1987 as a schoolboy at Symphony High School in Belhar and culminating in the South African senior men’s 800m title in 2000, Abrahams overcame heart problems to achieve his dream.
Born and bred in Kuils River, Abrahams took up athletics after some of his friends whom he played football and rugby with started dabbling in cigarettes and alcohol. It was clear this lifestyle did not appeal to Abrahams, especially given his health at the time.
Athletics became his default sport as he started to train with the school’s athletes. He was a natural, which prompted his teacher, Theo Poggenpoel, to ask him what it was that he wanted to achieve in athletics.
“I always wanted to know how fast and how far I could run. Theo’s response was ‘let’s see’,” says Abrahams who, to this day, sees Theo as an older brother.
Recognising the talent, Poggenpoel and another teacher Martin Marthinus, took Abrahams under their wings.
“At school, I met Joseph Buffet who looks like Sydney Maree and with Theo, Martin and Buffet we trained together with the rest of the school,” recalls Abrahams.
Abrahams says they “trained harder than anybody else at the school”.
In 1987, his first year of competition, Abrahams won the boys’ under-17 800m and 1500m at the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union’s (WPSSSU) Champion of Champions meeting at the Athlone Stadium.
He remembers the highly talented Mark Frank (800m and 1500m) of Woodlands and Andre Rhoode (400m and triple jump) of Lavender Hill being in the team with him to the South African Senior Schools Sports Association’s (SASSSA) championships in Paarl. Frank and Rhoode were competing in the Boy’s Open team. Abrahams competed against Frank in the boys’ open section in 1990 and at club level later.
“I had a lot of competition but the real competition came from Frank and Boland’s Derick Fredericks.”
Abrahams had further success at the WPSSSU level when he qualified for the team again in 1991. By the time the SASSSA record books closed in 1994, Abraham’s 1500m record of 3 minutes and 59, 0 seconds set in 1990 still stood.
Much of his success had come as a result of a natural talent and hard work on the sand dunes near the R-300 in Kuils River. He did track work on a cabbage patch which constituted a football field in Kuils River.
With the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, the push for participation in international sport by a section of South Africans was gaining momentum.
“We all knew that Nelson Mandela would be released from jail, but not at the pace it had happened. There were many athletes who wanted to compete internationally. I was nervous about the future as far athletics was concerned given the aura of the Kenyans,” says Abrahams.
Abrahams remembers how impatient a number of athletes were at the prospect of international sport.
“I was already at the Stellenbosch Athletics Club where a number of athletes couldn’t wait for Mandela’s release with the hope of competing internationally,” he says.
Abrahams had his best years while at the Stellenbosch Athletics Club.
He was a member of the club from 1991-2005.
Here, he achieved personal bests of 46,81 seconds (400m); 1 minute 45, 03 (800m); 2 minutes 18,24 seconds (1000m) and 3 minutes 42,87 seconds (1500m).
Not bad for an athlete who once aspired to be a sprinter. Certainly, his 400m time bears testimony to that.
Senior 800m title
His 800m time was set up at the SA Senior Champs in 2000 when he won the senior men’s title. His time was also a qualifying time for the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000.
At the time, he was coached by Bobby McGee, an internationally certified track and field coach who also guided the careers of Jantjie Marthinus and Johan Landsman while at Stellenbosch.
Post 1994, athletics in South Africa gained increased prominence, which meant money was flowing into the sport.
Premier athletes earned anything between R30 000 and R100 000 per month from sponsors between 1992 and 2005.
“Athletics had changed completely by then. You didn’t have to worry about anything. Everything from transport, hotels and salary was taken care of. All an athlete had to do was train and produce the results and with it, of course, came incentives,” says Abrahams.
He competed on the European Circuit for several seasons, but he clocked his fastest time of 1 minute 45, 03 in the 800m at Coetzenburg, Stellenbosch, winning the SA title to boot in 2000.
During his 15 years as a top athlete, Abrahams achieved a host of milestones.
He was in the team for track and cross country athletics at both WP and SA level. He represented both Boland and WP at different times in his career.
Between 2007 and 2011 he was the veterans WP and SA 400m, 800m and 1500m champion.
Abrahams still competes as a veteran, while coaching young athletes and is in the process of setting up an athletics club.