Tessa Hefele – the meteoric rise of an 800m teen champ

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“I GUESS it was my love of the sport, my dedication and my competitiveness that gave me the edge.”

 These are the words of teen prodigy Tessa Hefele of Spartans who, at the age of 13, became the youngest athlete to win the Elsie’s River street mile and hold the senior women’s 800m record simultaneously in 1985.

Tessa Hefele
Tessa Hefele, right, went on to win the mile from Sharon Klein and Lucinda Klaasen.

During her reign, she peppered the 800m records from girls under 14 at senior schools (high school) through to the club records, both at provincial and national level.

In her first year, as a girls under 14 middle-distance runner at Garlandale High School, at the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union’s sectional meeting, she crashed through the old 800m marks, setting a WPSSSU record of 2 minutes and 25,7 seconds.

 “The high school athletic scene was very competitive for schools which resulted in a fierce rivalry between the competing schools, particularly the A section,” says Hefele.

At the South African Senior Schools Sports Association’s meeting, she set the record at 2:22,7.

At age 13, she won the junior ladies 800m in Port Elizabeth in 2 minutes 20, 3 seconds.

Tessa Hefele
Tessa Hefele at the age of 13, won the junior ladies 800m in Port Elizabeth in 2 minutes 20, 3 seconds.

Having lost to ace athlete Roslyn Meyer (Williams) of South Peninsula in the 800m earlier in the 1985 season, Hefele beat Meyer in the 800m at the first South African Amateur Athletics Board Prestige meeting.

“I loved the 800m; the 1500m only helped with the 800m but I didn’t really like it,” says Hefele.

800m, 1500m and street mile

An unduly modest statement, since she would go on to win more than just one 1500m race over her perennial rivals Sharon Klein of Bishop Lavis High School and club, Mercia Misroll of Spartans and Valda Booysen (Ford) of South Peninsula and the up-and-coming star Anita Witbooi of Macassar High School and the Stellenbosch Amateur Athletics Club.

Misroll attended Kentemade High School and Booysen was at Crestway High School.

As if the 1500m was too long a race, she won the Elsie’s River Street Mile, beating the likes of Klein and the former South African Amateur Athletics Board junior ladies 800m record holder Lucinda Klaasen of Elsie’s River Amateur Athletics Club.

She was the youngest athlete to win the mile at age 13.

This, in summary, was Hefele’s introduction to athletics in 1985.

Tessa Hefele
Tessa Hefele and the rest of the Spartans athletes train under the watchful eye of coach Robin April.

Her introduction to the sport was so intense and rapid that some coaches headed for the newspapers cautioning against Hefele’s meteoric rise and intense training at just aged 13.

But was it really that intense? Elsewhere, in Eastern Europe training was said to have been severely intense during the Cold War and prior to the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

‘My father was my inspiration’

None of the coaches could have known about the training methods behind the Iron Curtain and the intense training in the democracies of the West during the unrest of 1985 in the Western Cape, South Africa.

Was her coach, Robin April, a former 800m champion himself, and known for his heavy and intense training methods, on par with world standards? That’s a debate for the coaches not for this writer.

“Mr April was my coach and he expected me to be committed to training,” says Hefele, who bought into the successful training drills.

Tessa Hefele
Tessa Hefele and her father, Aubrey (Owen) Hefele.

But, “my dad was my inspiration”, says Hefele.

Her father Aubrey Hefele, a former athlete, too, also went by the name of Owen. He passed away in 2001.

Her father made sure that everything was in place and convenient for her when it came to athletics.

“I would go to my grandmother’s home in Silvertown after school to get ready for training at the Vygieskraal Stadium,” says Hefele.

The Hefeles lived in Mitchell’s Plain and her father worked near Vygieskraal Stadium in Athlone.

Hefele attended the Westville Primary School in Westridge, Mitchell’s Plain, where she first started out as a sprinter, long jumper and high jumper.

Robin April and Cecil Blows

She did not blossom in athletics at primary school. However, at Alexander Sinton High in 1984, as a twelve-year-old, she won the girls under 14 800m, running in the colours of Beda at the school’s inter-house athletics meeting at City Park Stadium.

Tessa Hefele
Tessa Hefele in SASSSA colours on her way to breaking the 800m record.

“I ran home to tell my dad that I had won the race. He was so excited and asked his school friend Mr Cecil Blows what he should do. Mr Blows referred my father to Spartans,” she recalls.

Blows and Hefele senior attended Trafalgar High School together in the 1950s. Blows was also the convenor of the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union’s athletic meetings since 1964.

The chairman of Spartans was Robin April. April (800m) and Blows (sprints) were friends and on the athletics scene at the same time in the 1960s.

Both were student teachers at Hewat Training College in the 1960s.

Gugulethu road race

While at Spartans, Hefele participated in her first road race in Gugulethu and won!

Tessa Hefele
Tessa Hefele of WP upstaged the SASSSA duo of Marina Opperman and Anita Witbooi in the junior ladies 800m.

“It was then that Mr April stepped in to coach me,” says Hefele.

“I found club athletics tougher than at high school. In club athletics I ran with ladies older than myself, whereas in high school I ran with girls in my own age group,” Hefele recalls.

She did not represent Sinton that year as there had been some difficulty with her birth certificate.  She left Sinton and enrolled at Garlandale High School in Athlone.

“My father always wanted me to be a champion athlete. He was very excited when I won the road race in Gugulethu and said, ‘you’re on your way my baby’,” remembers Hefele.

Still under 14 in 1985, Hefele’s athletics career took off like a runaway train.

She had improved so rapidly in 1985, her first season really, that April entered her in the senior events.

Beating senior record holders

Here Hefele would cause a stir, upsetting the likes of senior champion Booysen in the 800m.

Tessa Colour
Sharon Klein and Tessa Hefele

In March 1986 at the track at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), still only 14, she not only beat Booysen but broke her South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB) record, too, in a time of 2 minutes and 13,6 seconds.  The old mark stood at 2:13,7. Klein was second and Booysen third. This just summed up the intense nature of the women’s middle distance racing at the time.

“I clearly remember the race at UWC. It was a floodlit meeting – the last one before the SAAAB champs in Paarl. UWC had an international flavour as a venue for athletics. It was also the track where Jantjie (Marthinus) broke the senior men’s 800m record,” remembers Hefele.

Booysen regained her 800m record in 1988 in a time of 2:13,2.

Beating older athletes was nothing new to Hefele.  She had beaten record holders Klaasen, Klein and Booysen in her favourite event, the 800m.

Upstaging SASSSA athletes

Hefele was to upset the applecart again at the last meeting of the 1986 season at the SAAAB Prestige Track and Field Meeting at the Vygieskraal Stadium.

She beat the older SASSSA athlete Sharnell Norris of Transvaal into second place.

Roslyn Meyer.
Roslyn Meyer, the former SASSSA track and cross country champion.

But it was at the 1987 SAAAB Prestige Meeting where she upstaged the South African Senior Schools Sports Association (SASSSA) athletes.

The two spots in the SASSSA team fell to Marina Opperman of Boland and Anita Witbooi of Western Province.

“Anita came from nowhere and beat me at the Champion of Champions in 1987. I was out of the WP school team for the first time after having had an easy time in the girls 14 and 15 age groups respectively,” says Hefele.  There was no under 16 age group at the time.

Anita made the WP schools team, Hefele did not.

The Western Province Amateur Athletics Union selected her, giving Hefele the chance to make a statement in the junior ladies 800m race at the SAAAB Prestige Meeting in 1987.

Her colours lowered, Hefele won the race convincingly, proving that the 800m race was her domain.  Witbooi was second. Opperman came third.

Tessa Hefele
Tessa Hefele running at her favourite venue, the UWC Track.

Cross country and road events

Of all the athletes, she rates Roslyn Meyer as the one athlete who would have given her tougher times over the 800m if it were not for Meyer’s early retirement.

Like Meyer, Hefele enjoyed cross country and road events, but these events only served to keep her stamina in check for the track season.

In 1986, Hefele was good enough to be selected not only for the WP team but also for the SAAAB cross country team.

Hefele says she aspired to be like Zola Budd, the teen prodigy on the other side of the apartheid divide.

“I would have loved to represent my country internationally, but it wasn’t meant for my generation of athletes,” says Hefele.

She no longer follows athletics nor has she been to an athletics meeting since retiring from the sport.

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