BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
WINNING the last gold medal in the 1996 Comrades Marathon changed Donovan Wright’s life from one of socio-economic hardship to a better life for him and his young family.
Wright is married to Marita (Braaf) and they have four sons Landou, Dougan, Decland and Larkan.
His character tells a story of resilience and positivity of an athlete who had to knuckle down to beat the odds that life threw at him. A resilience that helped him overcome a severe and persistent battle with cancer.
He never succumbed.
“From old Belhar’s Mimosa Village, I was able to move to a better area, the former Whites Only suburb of Boston in Bellville,” says Wright.
Western Province record
He won the last gold medal (the tenth one) in 1996 ( 5 hours 45 minutes 55 seconds, up run) at the age of 29, and was the first South African runner home in the Comrades 89km race in 2000 in a time of 5 hours, 35 minutes and 37 seconds (up run). He was fourth overall in 2000. (The first 10 runners win gold medals)
His time is a Western Province record (2000).
Wright was placed eighth (1998) and sixth (1999) for a further two gold medals in the Two Oceans 56km race. These are phenomenal achievements by any standard, made even more remarkable given Wright’s tough upbringing.
At this stage you may wonder why on earth Athletics Clipboard is acknowledging someone who has run the Comrades and Two Oceans post-1994 when this website pays tribute to athletes pre-1994.
Well, Donovan Wright pre-dates his Comrades and Two Oceans successes. He was an athlete and a former captain of the Western Province Amateur Athletics Union’s Track and Field team (WPAAU, a Sacos affiliate via the South African Amateur Athletics Board [SAAAB]).
He was also the SAAAB Track and Field captain in 1991.
His love for athletics was there for all to see. A versatile athlete, he even competed in the javelin event and won! He competed in the middle to long distance track events, road and cross country races.
He admired and trained with David Snyders of Trafalgar, the SAAAB marathon record holder (2 hours, 20 minutes and 5 seconds).
His time to achieve even more was going to come as he was an athlete who competed for WPAAU very close to unity, and, so, his timing could not have been more perfect.
On the right track
Wright thrived on long distance running – make that ultra-distance running.
By the time unity had been forged in 1992, Wright was on the right track so to speak.
Under Sacos, for a myriad of reasons, the task and success of organising ultra-marathons hinged on major sponsorships, resources, roads (routes) and a venue capable of accommodating tens of thousands of people. The codes of sport played under Sacos had never been backed by big business in South Africa. Their focus was the sponsoring of white sport.
Under a new democratic dispensation, Wright could express himself as an ultra-distance runner. This, of course, he did with dignity and determination in the ugly face of adversity.
Born in Durant Street, Silvertown in 1967, he grew up not knowing his father Herman Krieger. He was born a Vigeland (his grandfather’s surname on his mother’s side).
“My father refused to acknowledge me as his first born son,” reflects Wright.
Move to Pacaltsdorp
While in Silvertown, he attended Silverlea Primary School, one of the schools in Athlone known for its athletics achievements.
At the height of the 1976 riots, Wright and his mother Lillian Wright moved to Pacaltsdorp, a suburb of George in the Western Cape.
There his stepfather Trevor Wright changed his surname from Vigeland to Wright.
He attended Pacaltsdorp High where he was the head boy in 1985 before moving to Cape Town to study at the University of the Western Cape in 1986.
He lived in Bellville, and without warning, his mother had stopped paying his boarding and lodging.
He then had to live in a Wendy house (a wooden toy house meant for children to play in) at R50 a month. The Wendy house wasn’t insulated, and in winter the rain would soak his bed.
From Bellville, he had to move to Tafelsig in Mitchells Plain, an area being the furthest place in Mitchell’s Plain near “Wolfgat Nature Reserve”. From there he moved to Woodlands, an area situated in the front section of Mitchell’s Plain.
Many times he had to cover the distance between Mitchell’s Plain and Bellville by running there in a time of 1 hour and 45 minutes.
One would have thought that running to Mitchell’s Plain and back would have inadvertently sparked his talent for long- distance running, but Wright’s talent had already been ignited at the age of 10.
“I never knew I could run, and more importantly run fast until I was 10 years old. We were in Pacaltsdorp by then. I rode an owner’s horses and donkeys without permission and got chased by a group of men. They could not catch me even though they had the South Western District’s 800m athlete John Gabriells with them. Just then I knew I had some talent,” explains Wright.
While studying Clinical Psychology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and being the captain of the UWC Athletics Club, he was granted an annual bursary from the Foundation of Peace and Justice.
With the bursary, Wright was able to find stability in his life and he had moved back to Bellville.
He completed his studies and worked as a Human Resources Director in several companies.
He returned to Pacaltsdorp in 1992.
He was back Bellville in 1993 to take up a lecturing position at UWC where he met his wife Marita Braaf while she was a student in his class.
At this stage, Wright was still competing in athletics with very little access to resources.
His big break came when he won the gold medal in the 1996 Comrades Marathon.
“Winning the last gold medal (1996) was the kick start to financial freedom. On the day Mr Price paid me R5000 to only wear their tracksuit, Adidas provided a contract worth R104 000 per annum of which the first month’s payment was R24 000 x 2 on signing the contract. Because I was a debutant gold medallist at Comrades, Harmony Gold Mine signed me for R7000 per month, without any race incentives and Golden products gave me R4000 per month for nine years,” says Wright.
Understanding the importance education, Wright gave his tenth place prize money to a student Percy Zuma of Kwazulu-Natal to further his studies.
“When the news broke that I had given my prize money to a student for study purposes, cheques arrived in the post from all over South Africa,” says Wright.
His success also landed him a contract with SABC for nine years for commentating on the Two Oceans and Comrades.
“Spiritually; God’s promise and purpose for me was to become a bit more than a
throw-away child and a failure in life,” reflects Wright.
Life was looking much better for Wright.
He was able to buy his son Dougan a limited edition Porsche on finishing matric as the head boy at Vorentoe High School in Johannesburg, and on the same day in 2012 he bought his wife a Range Rover Evoque as a gift after 21 years of marriage.
He worked as an HR Executive, Manager and is a Director of a company that made R24 billion last year.
The gold medal clearly attracted a lot of attention over the years and “even my biological father then saw me as good enough to be my father and made contact”.
He has since lost both his mother and father.
At the height of his successes, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2000, shortly after his return from the World 100km. This put a stop to his running career at the highest level.
The cancerous tumour, which is now in remission, was persistent over the years and led to a series of operations.
His love for running hasn’t faded and Donovan Wright still runs daily.
*Next week we bring you the people who played a role in his life, his son breaking world records and a summary of his achievements.