SHARING a living space with a white family and “feeling the heat of apartheid” at the height of her athletics career did not deter Roslyn Meyer from reaching the top.
Meyer, who lived in Hout Bay, used to train on Chapman’s Peak, Suikerbossie and Constantia Nek.
One morning, like every other morning, she and her friend Charles Adonis went for their usual run from Hout Bay Harbour to the park in Hout Bay, where they would do their normal strength training using the equipment at the park.
On that particular morning, the police approached them.
“We have received a complaint from someone at the Hout Bay Museum that you people are damaging the equipment. You are no longer permitted the use of this park. Run home,” Meyer remembers the police saying, something akin to “kry huis” (go home).
This had happened during the time when Meyer slept over at the home of her white teacher and mentor Ms Celeste Wolfaardt in Hout Bay.
“She was like a mother to me. I used to babysit her children, Nadia and Thabo, and sleep over.
“This was my first experience sharing a living space with a white family,” says Meyer.
“I remember feeling dejected. To think, because of the colour of my skin and the racial tension in the country, we were no longer seen as good enough to use the park. I detested that,” says Meyer.
Ejecting Meyer from the park did not matter to the police, who were backed by the policies of the National Party government at the time during apartheid.
Little did they know, or care, that Meyer was an athletics wunderkind, just like Zola Budd was on the other side of the apartheid divide (a policy that dictated the separation of whites from blacks between 1948 and 1994).
In fact, Meyer admired Budd and her namesake Elana Meyer at the time.
Meyer, like Budd, a barefooted athlete, competed in her first competitive race at the age of 12 in 1983. Budd, of course, ran a 5000m world record the next year at Coetzenburg, Stellenbosch.
“My first cross country race was at Strandfontein Beach,” Meyer recalls. “My teacher Ms Wolfaardt, at Sentinel Secondary High School, had a blue and white combi that she used to transport us every week to the cross country events.”
Outshining the seniors
Here, at Strandfontein Beach, she finished in second place – having competed as a 12-year-old in the girls’ open section (over 17 age group).
Meyer and her school team would go on to win the event four years in a row from 1983-1986 under the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU).
“I remember running barefooted in the sand – it was difficult, but I kept going. I was placed second, but I was ahead of our own senior runners (Sentinel),” Meyer remembers with pride.
She pinned her ears back that year and went on to win the rest of the cross country races in 1983.
The young athlete’s introduction to track athletics was also in 1983, as a 12-year-old competing in the under 15 age group!
WPSSSU did not cater for the girls under 14 800m and 1500m at the time. In fact, the 1500m was not on the programme either in the under 15 age group, only the 800m. Senior schools had sound reasons for this at the time: the lack of entries, the quality of the field and so on.
“I was 12 years old and would have turned 13 in September. I came first at the inter-schools, third at the semi-final champion of champions and sixth at the champion of champions in 1983,” Meyer recalls.
In 1984, Meyer announced herself loud and clear in athletics (cross country and track) in the girls under 15 age group.
She stitched up everybody in the cross country and track races.
800m record holder
The summer track season started off with WPSSSU and South African Senior Schools Sports Association (SASSSA) records in the 800m. Her WPSSSU girls under 15 800m record of 2 minutes and 22, 1 seconds and SASSSA record of 2 minutes and 22,5 seconds stood until the books closed in 1994 – the year South Africa became a democracy.
With all of her successes in cross-country and track races, Meyer earned her WPSSSU and SASSSA colours.
Her biggest rival on the track in the 800m was Tessa Hefele of Garlandale High School and of the Spartans Amateur Athletics Club, although the two ran in different age groups.
They regularly met each other in the 800m race during the Andrewena Series at the Vygieskraal Stadium where the winner would change hands.
Even though Meyer’s track races were the ones that captured the imagination, she was more of a cross country and road athlete.
She competed all over the country in cross country races: Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, Steinkopf in the Northen Cape, Groot Brak (Great Brak River, a coastal village near Mossel Bay in the Western Cape), and of course, Tokai Forest, Zeekoevlei and Newlands Forest in Cape Town.
Meyer was the cross country champion from 1983 to 1985.
Barefoot cross country runner and champion
“I remember 1984 and qualifying for the WPSSSU and SASSSA team which included Sharon Klein, Zelda Muller and Desiree Williams. They were all older than me and I beat them all,” says Meyer proudly.
She particularly remembers a SASSSA race at Newlands Forest in 1984.
“Our second race was at Newlands Forest (the first one was at Tokai at Porter Estate). This was the best race and feeling I ever had. When I won the race, I remember Mr Peter Loxton running after me shouting ‘it’s finished, you can stop’. I felt like I could run forever! The medics came to see to me because my feet were bleeding and I had blisters. This did not stop me from running the next race of the SASSSA championships bare-footed at Zeekoevlei, two days later.”
Meyer won a 4km cross country race in Paarl in 1985 beating some of the established athletes in Priscilla Windwaai and Jeanette Abrahams of Stellenbosch. Their team mate Jowaine Parrott finished the race in fourth place. Parrott, in later years, won a gold medal in the Comrades marathon and was a three times runner-up in the Two Oceans Marathon.
While at the South Peninsula Amateur Athletics Club, Meyer competed in road races.
Among Meyer’s prestigious performances on the road was winning the South African Amateur Athletics Board’s (SAAAB) senior women’s 15km road race at the age of 14 in 1985.
“I would get up at 5am and go for 45-minute runs every morning from Hout Bay Harbour to the Village. In the evenings, we would run up Chapman’s Peak or Suikerbossie. We also ran to Constantia Nek and back,” says Meyer.
‘Running was my saving grace’
The “we” Meyer is referring to are the white and black (coloured) athletes who trained together simply because they were friends and worshippers at the same Anglican Church in Hout Bay.
“We were pretty much serving one God under one roof. That is where we made friends. We all loved to run in the mornings and evenings. Living in Hout Bay was perfect for running. We had all the different terrains which were excellent training grounds,” reflects Meyer.
“Apartheid did not affect us in this way,” says Meyer.
There was friction at the school when Meyer competed in road races in the northern suburbs which were not under the auspices of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos).
“I did not think I was doing anything wrong, I was just running, the one thing that I loved to do,” remembers Meyer.
Wolfaardt was not only her teacher at Sentinel but also her mentor and the two would go for early morning runs at 5am.
“Running and travelling was my escape, my saving grace,” says Meyer.
You see, Meyer wasn’t a privileged prodigy.
She was born to a broken family: her parents were not married and she essentially lived with her aunt, so that her mother, the bread winner, could work. Her father was an alcoholic.
“Unfortunately for me, my father’s alcoholism was a big deterrent for me. My running and travelling allowed me the opportunity to see that there is life beyond the mountains of Hout Bay. I was disciplined from a young age and this has helped to be the person I am today,” Meyer reflects.
For her success, she credits many people: Rene Jephta, Celeste Wolfaardt, Carrol Boyes, Estelle Jansen, Charles Jansen; and Mr Loxton, Mr Meyer, Mr Grootboom and Mr Abrahams (whose first names are unfortunately not known).
Boyes and Jephta were Meyer’s first sponsors: “I remember Ms Jephta taking me to Pep Stores and PJ’s to buy my first tracksuit.”
Carrol Boyes (a teacher at the time and today a well-known South African designer), gave Meyer a blank cheque to purchase an outfit so that she could attend the school prom at Sentinel. (Sentinel went up to Std 8, grade 10.)
“Ms Boyes gave me a blank cheque to go and purchase my outfit. My best friend Ingrid Phillips went with me and I remember we purchased everything at Truworths in Cape Town. Ms Boyes trusted a 16-year-old with a blank cheque and looking back now I am grateful for the trust and the belief she had in me,” says Meyer.
Her last SASSSA track meeting was at the Dal Josafat Stadium 1987 while a student at Heathfield High School where she completed her matric.
“Heathfield wasn’t big on cross country,” says Meyer, who was never to compete again after 1987.
The next chapter
Meyer is married to Brian Williams. They have one daughter, Courtney.
Courtney and Cara, the daughter of another great athlete Valda Booysen were born on the same day – the fourth of July 2001 – in a private maternity suite the two star athletes shared.
Booysen (married Ford), also from South Peninsula, was a senior to Meyer and the two never competed against each other although they knew of each other.
“Courtney Williams and Cara Ford met up at Golden Grove Primary School, Rondebosch, in 2007 and became besties,” says Meyer.
Meyer is the Chief Operations Officer of Swift Skills Academy in Killarney Gardens where she works closely with learners and facilitators.
“I have a passion for training and development,” she says of her newfound interest.