Jeppe Girls – developing an athletics culture
01 January 1970
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Brad Brown: You’re listening to Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now. The factory of great South African runners starts at a very early age. You can ask any of our top athletes, particularly those that competed at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, where their journey started. They would have told you it started at school and I thought we’d take a step back.
We’ve been chatting to a lot of the administrators from Athletics South Africa, finding out what’s happening on their front, from a development point of view, from growing the sport. But I thought what better way to do it than to touch base with one of the schools and find out what’s going on at really grass roots level from an athletic point of view. We’re joined now by the Head Mistress of Jeppe Girls, Dina Goncalves. Dina welcome, thank you for joining us.
Dina Goncalves: What a wonderful opportunity, thank you for having me.
BB: Dina, I’m not sure if I should be nervous or not, the only time I got to speak to headmasters and headmistresses at school was when I was in trouble. I’m not quite sure if I am expecting some trouble, but I doubt it, I really do doubt it. I’ve heard great things about you and what’s going on at Jeppe Girls.
DG: I don’t think you’ll be in trouble at all, let’s kick away with some athletics.
Adding athletics programmes along with team sports
BB: Dina, let’s talk about what’s going on at Jeppe Girls and this is probably a good barometer for most things in the country from an athletics point of view. Growing up for us, I mean athletics took place at school. But there was always one or two kids that excelled. Is that still very much the case or is there a much bigger focus on it nowadays?
DG: We’re at an all-girls school, so we’ve had the traditional sports of tennis, netball and hockey and over the last 20 years we’ve branched out into things like soccer and cricket and volleyball. So there’s a majority of children that are involved in team sports.
The athletics, which is more like an individualistic sport hasn’t really played a major role at our school. In fact, we didn’t have an athletics team. We did, however, have cross country, so they do about a 4km route and that’s been part of the ethos of the school.
But in terms of athletics, we’ve just started a little academy for Grade 8’s and 9’s where they get an opportunity to do some sprints and some middle distance. We’re very excited about that. We just started that two years ago and currently we’ve got girls also trying out for the hurdles. There is some talent, obviously if they’re on the field, they really come with a little bit of athleticism and we’re excited.
We’re hosting the inter high for the girl’s schools in Johannesburg and that’s where we’re at. We do have our little Wayde van Niekerk as well. A little sprinter. There are some children who are just very naturally talented and those will always shine through.
The role of helping to nurture talent
BB: Isn’t that always the case though, that there’s always going to be a handful, in any school, that are gifted athletically. It’s your job as a head mistress and as a school, to facilitate that and to build and nurture that talent.
DG: Certainly it is, we just find that with the academic, should I say pressures, that’s there’s less and less staff on hand. The responsibility and onus is on the school to try and make the finance available to hire coaches etc. that can give to children. I do think it’s a balancing act between the resources of the school and also trying to mould the talent.
Ideally, we would love every child to be doing this and that we would enable them to do it through the various facilities and resources. But at the end of the day, as you say, it’ll always be a handful. Although, for us, we are utilising our academy, which is a compulsory academy. So we would have 200 Grade 8’s and 200 Grade 9’s who go through that process. Also in their Life Orientation program,me each child does get an opportunity to develop that potential as well.
BB: I love that, that it’s a mass participation thing. Let’s be honest, even on the academic side, not every kid is going to excel in every avenue. But you never quite know where you are going to find your hidden talents. I’m glad that everyone is involved and obviously some would gravitate more towards it than others. But it sounds fantastic. As far as competing, do you compete against other schools very often, or is it not as often as it should be? How are things looking in that department?
DG: Well, in term two they do compete against other schools in the area. It’s obviously the cross country term. Then in term three, now, that we’re in, it would be the athletics and they are competing against other schools. Not as many as some of the co-ed schools, have got a much larger and broader programme. We currently are only starting off. Last year we only did sprints, this year we’re doing the hurdles and some field events as well. So we are growing it and we’re very excited.
The Olympic Game proved a great inspiration
BB: Dina, how much does a sporting event like the Rio Olympics drive motivation from the girls at the school and drive interest. Not just in athletics, that’s a big one because we’ve had a couple of great performances on the track. But are the girls showing more interest now because of the Olympics?
DG: Well, that is a fantastic question because when Wayde broke the record early Monday morning, I decided that in assembly I would show the 43 seconds of magic to the whole school and we’ve got 930 girls. We watched the 43 seconds and after that, they just applauded as if they were Maracana Stadium. They thoroughly enjoy what Rio brings, the camaraderie, the sportsmanship, the hype, the activity etc.
I showed them the 43 seconds a second time. Because I told them, this is a World Record, this doesn’t happen often. I got equal applause at the end of that. I think the Olympic Games is just a phenomenal catalyst towards girls being involved.
I then asked them, how many of them got up on Monday morning at 3:00 to watch the race? I had around 20 or so that had gotten up for the race. I think the ones that are keen participants will certainly pay attention. Obviously for others it’s more difficult, but I just love the Olympic Games. The motto, the fact that you participate, you live to participate, not just to win. The stories behind the athletes, where the athletes have been.
I asked the girls who is the coach, who is Wayde’s coach? They told me it’s a lady who is 74. So we had a whole story around coaching and experience. What our elders bring for us as well. That we need to respect each other, whatever age group we’re in. I think there’s so many stories that the Games bring. Not just on the track and the field. But around life and the values of life and those kind of things.
Showcasing of women’s running having a knock on effect
BB: I love that, I just got goose-bumps when you told me that story. Because you never quite know the seeds that you’re planting, when they’re going to be harvested. Just that little assembly, you never know what’s going to come of that in five or 10 years or 20 years from now, it’s phenomenal. So well done on doing that, I think that’s amazing. Let’s also talk about the advent of events like the Total Sports Ladies Series, the Spar Ladies Runs in South Africa, are there girls in the school that are showing interest in possibly running those sorts of races?
DG: Certainly there are. At our fun run that we had last week, it was a 5km fun run and one of our Grade 9’s won the race. But at the same time, sorry, in the school’s section. The race was won by a lady who is a family member of one of our teachers. The second place was one of our old girls who matriculated here in 1992, she came second. She runs for a running club, she’s a Comrades runner and she’s now connected with us and her running club and would like us to join the Street Mile. I think our connections are very helpful in developing that.
But each year we have a group of girls that do the Spar Ladies and we’ve got parents as well who are involved and certainly assist in getting the girls to the various venues. There are one or two others that are coming up as well, that if the girls have got time during the weekend, will certainly enlist for.
BB: Brilliant. Dina, as far as education goes, there’s that old saying ‘healthy body, healthy mind.’ How important is athletics and running and just being active? As an educator, you could probably see it in a classroom, of who the kids are that are very physically active. The impact that that has on other aspects of their life? Chatting to parents who might be listening to this, would you encourage parents to encourage their kids, boys and girls, to get involved in a sport like running?
Running is a fantastic sport for school children
DG: Absolutely! I think it’s the cheapest way of doing any sport. You don’t need a ball, you don’t need a stick, you don’t need any equipment, you just need yourself really to be out there. For us the difficulty is to make it safe for the children.
Our school environment always brings in a protected environment that the children can be safe and still be running. I would say the best way to get holistic development is to get the children out there and running and get them away from their screens. We’re really trying to swap the screen for some sunshine and being active.
Hence, I’m working in a school of teenage girls. Very often their self-esteem isn’t that great and they try and shy away from exposing their bodies and developing muscles and that kind of thing. We always just want to have everybody out there and make sure that we don’t lose out on any of the talent that is out there.
I would really encourage parents to get them into a school club or one of the running clubs where even the parents and the family members can get involved. Parents are so involved in their work lives that often they don’t touch base with their children or even teenagers. It’s a great way to spend a weekend with your child, running and enjoying the fresh air. Just being out there and developing your physical potential. Certainly I would encourage parents to do that.
BB: The truth of it is, you don’t have to be fantastic at it, you can go out and enjoy it, not everyone can win, but not everyone wants to win. As long as you’re out there and enjoying it and like you say, swapping the screen for the sunscreen, I think that’s vital.
Are the provincial and national structures in place?
BB: Dina, you mentioned you’ve got a handful of girls who are excelling, is the opportunity still there for them to represent, whether it be central Gauteng, at provincial level and go on to represent South Africa. Are those structures in place? Is there enough motivation driving the kids to really push themselves, particularly the ones that are really good?
DG: Every child always wants to do their best and so for those who do achieve the highest level, there is always provincial representation. They can also get national representation as well. I think they do, I think in today’s world a child tries to do quite a lot of other activities as well.
So the drive to just be a superstar at one sport, especially at a secondary school, perhaps is not there. I know lots of sports people at around 18, they’ve got to choose and focus on one specific event in order to become more professional at it.
But at the moment, yes, the children are aware that if they can train hard and push, in fact, we’re having a Conditioning Centre built at the moment at the school. In order to provide conditioning for specific sports. So we’ve very excited about that and how the girls can now re-focus on what they want to do.
Sometimes you’re just participating because you want to make friends. You’re going to a sport because you want to meet new people and make friends. But all of a sudden our standards are changing because we’re saying, if you do want to represent your country, then you would need to be doing this, that and the rest. We’re really excited about the prospect of our Conditioning Centre and what it can bring for national representation.
BB: It sounds like there’s some amazing things on the go at Jeppe Girls. Thank you so much for joining us today here on Old Mutual Live, keep up the great work. Who knows, maybe the next Caster Semenya or the next Irvette van Zyl or René Kalmer or Christine Kalmer can come from Jeppe Girls in the years to come. We look forward to seeing the results of the seeds that you’re planting today.
DG:Thank you so much Brad for that opportunity and all the best for the rest of the athletes at Rio.