BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
TAKE something so ordinary, flip it, and do it differently.
The words of Mark Frank, poet, writer and author.
Frank has certainly flipped his upbringing in Woodlands Mitchell’s Plain. This after the Frank family was evicted from their house on a hill behind Trafalgar High School in District Six in 1976 when he was five years old, growing up and doing things differently.
A way of escaping
He did not allow the perceived scourge of Mitchell’s Plain to engulf him. Instead, he participated in athletics as a way of escaping. Later, his Writing became his escape.
“I found some joy in running – running was like an escape.”
After being defeated in his first race at high school at the age of 15 (under 16) in which he came last, he turned his fortunes around by the time he was in the boys’ under 17 age group.
Standing for the underdog
“I was frustrated with defeat, and the following year I came first and kept winning after that. I ran at a club meeting at the Vygieskraal Stadium. I was a student at Woodlands High School. I love Woodlands.
“I loved high school athletics, it was nerve wracking. I loved to represent Woodlands, you know, because of the area. I stood for the underdog. That is really something I wanted to stand for to represent the underdog,” he says.
He got to know about the Vygieskraal Stadium meetings through his school who entered athletes there on a weekly basis.
By the time he was 16, he represented the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union and the South African Senior Schools Sports Association in the boys’ under 17 800m alongside Stephen Cloete of Livingstone High School in 1988.
“Mark was a humble and quiet person. He did his talking on the track. I was a front runner. Mark had a superior finish,” remembers Cloete.
Frank won the 800m at the Champion of Champions and also became the South African Senior Schools Sports Association’s boys under 17 800m champion.
Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe
“I started to build on the talent I had. I used to start training in December only because I wasn’t aware that one had to do training during winter to be able to last the number of races ahead of me. As a result, when I came up against the top dogs at senior level, I was found wanting.”
Many athletes at the time were either a Steve Ovett or Seb Coe fan – Frank was a Coe fan. He learned how to train from the famous Coe video of the 1980’s.
He trained on Lion’s Head and had further mountain runs behind Rhodes Memorial during competition time, much too late to build a solid base for the season. He did track work on the grass track at the Westridge Oval.
In the boys’ open section in 1989, he competed against Shawn Abrahams, the former Sacos athlete credited with the fastest time of 1 minute 45.03 seconds of all the Sacos old boys.
“Shawn was exceptional. He wanted it [to do well], and he had a proper winter training programme. You get an alcoholic and then you get a runaholic. Shawn was a runaholic. He deserves his accolades.
“Although I didn’t beat Shawn at the Athlone Stadium, I would beat him at some of the club meetings run in the evenings at the UWC track in Bellville. It seemed I was more of an evening runner. I performed much better under those conditions.
What Frank didn’t say was that he had broken O’Neil Simpson’s SASSSA boys open 800m record 0f 1:53,3 set in 1979. Frank’s new mark was 1:52, 5 in 1991.
Frank found club athletics a lot tougher than high school athletics in 1989.
Quality of club athletes
“The depth in the quality of the athletes was the biggest difference. In high school athletics, it’s just you and another athlete, in my case, Stephen Cloete (under 17) and Shawn Abrahams (boys open). In club athletics you were up against several quality 800m runners week-in and week-out in Colin Francke, Shawn Abrahams, Ebenezer Felix, Stephen Cloete, Derek Fredericks, Cecil Witbooi, Keith Meyer and Michael Toll,” he says, having been a member of Mitchell’s Plain-based Olympiads Amateur Athletics Club.
Frank competed at four South African Amateur Athletics Board Prestige Track and Field meetings from 1989-1992, a period in which he gained a full set of provincial and SA colours at school and club level. In 1989 he was the SASSSA boys under 17 800m and, in 1991, he was the SAAAB senior men’s 800m champion.
“The colours I earned didn’t really hit home at the time. Those colours weren’t the ultimate for me in 1989 and 1990. Running became like a medicine. I didn’t worry about colours. Running was about enjoyment,” he says.
Too many barriers
Frank says there were so many athletes with exceptional talent that if they had been given the chance to train properly with the correct supervision, many would have made it to the top of their events on the world stage.
“We had too many barriers to contend with during apartheid; our environment, travelling to and fro from training and competitions, the quality of training methods itself, lack of international exposure or, even the lack of national exposure which the white clubs enjoyed. Those were all barriers in my book that held us back. Look at the talent coming through now because of international exposure.”
“He has proved what can be done. She was a brilliant 100m and 200m athlete. She was a natural. It would be nice to see her again after all this time,” said Frank.
Reign of Odessa
Odessa ruled the junior ladies sprints in 1990 and 1991.
“Another athlete who set the tone was Shaun Vester. I remember him receiving the Reader’s Digest sponsorship. When he got the sponsorship others realised that gaining a sponsorship can be achieved.”
Vester is known for clocking 10.5 seconds as a 15-year-old in 1985 and 10.1 seconds as an 18-year-old in 1988 in the 100m.
Frank was offered a scholarship to study at the historically black university Howard University in Washington, America in 1991 at the age of 20.
Vernon Seymour, the former South African Football Association Cape vice-president, facilitated the move locally after the head track and field coach William Moutri at Howard University showed an interest in Frank.
Frank did not take up the scholarship in 1992, instead, he joined the Bobby McGee stable of Jantjie Marthinus, Johan Landsman, Ebenezer Felix and Shawn Abrahams. He was a member of the Bellville athletics club.
“We trained as a team and there was too much competition among us. A lot of us reserved our performance. We were watching each other. The competition was ruthless, but it made me stronger. Training with them made it possible for me to compete in top races.
“The highlight of my athletics career was when I was given the privilege, all of us, to attempt to qualify for the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, the year Hezekiél Sepeng won silver in 1:42,74.”
He said at the time each race in the 800m was tough.
“You had Marius van Heerden, Johan Botha, Johan Landsman, Ebenezer Felix among other top runners. It was tough. After this, my career in the 800m died down. I started to run the 21km road races like the Two Oceans and other races on the Peninsula.
Teacher and academic
Running is but one phase of Frank’s life.
His advice to any athlete is to “do what others don’t do”.
“Take something so ordinary, flip it, and do it differently,” said Frank who has a master’s degree in English titled Common Barriers in the grade 10 English home language and informed ways of overcoming them. He is busy with his doctorate titled An Investigation in the grade 11 home language and how teachers use it in the classroom.
He resigned from teaching at Harold Cressy High School last year to pursue his doctoral studies.
He is a well-travelled teacher having taught in China, Thailand, Singapore and Japan. He also had a stint at Nova Hreod High School in Swindon, England.
The other side of love
His poetry book Silence only makes it louder is an option as an e-book. His poetry book is about one event with a distinguished lady which lasted three hours. This one event birthed a plethora of poetry.
His novel The other side of love is a twisted story about teenage revenge.
“My goal is to become one of the top South African poets and get my poetry into the exam papers,” he says.
Frank is also a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society, the world’s largest honours society which connects high-achieving individuals locally, regionally and globally with lifetime opportunity, reward and success.
He has two siblings, Donovan and Ashley.
He has a daughter, Jesse, 21.
His parents, James Frank and Lorain Van Eeden and their children were forcibly removed from District Six in 1976 and relocated in Woodlands, Mitchell’s Plain.
“We lived behind Trafalgar High School on the hill in District Six. I was born in 1971 and was five when we had to move [because of the Group Areas Act].”