At the age of 24, Rustenburg-born athlete Ilze Wicksell became the first woman from Africa to duck under two minutes in the 800m in 1983. In the same year, she also grabbed the 1000m national record, which still stands today, and now the Pretoria-based Tuks sports manager and high school athletics coach recalls her glory days as well as setbacks, and giving back to the sport she loves. – BY LAUREN VAN DER VYVER
Athletic success didn’t look to be part of Ilze’s future when she got to high school in the mid 70s, but then everything changed. “I was never a favourite to win anything growing up – I even failed to make my high school relay team – but one day, while I was running with my older brother up these mountains, his coach saw some talent in me and my training picked up,” says Ilze. Just a few months later she won her first inter-high 400m and 800m events, and then went on to compete in her first SA Junior Champs meet, where she placed second in the 800m. She never won a national junior title, always settling for the runners-up position, but that would change later in the senior ranks.
After her parents moved to Bloemfontein, Ilze decided to finish her schooling at Menlo Park High School in Pretoria, where she boarded with family friends, and then after school she moved back to Bloemfontein to study and to work with renowned coach De Villiers Lamprecht, who was certain of her ability to compete on a bigger stage. “It was an adjustment. As a student, I initially couldn’t make the 800m final, but in my second year, I performed better. My best then was a 2:07 finish, so I was never amongst the favourites going into nationals,” she explains. “Then I won the 800m at the 1979 SAs and cut my time to 2:03 and was selected for the Springbok squad as a reserve. I never thought I was as good as the others, but after that I knew I could be up there!”
From there, Ilze’s athletic career really took off. She won the 800m SA title again in 1980, 1981 and 1983, and added the 400m title in 1980 and 1981 as well, also improving her 800m time to 2:01 along the way. That brought increased public expectation to dip under the two-minute mark, which no African woman had done yet, even though the World Record had been 1:55 since 1976. Then in February 1983, after hard hours working on her speed, she clocked 2:37.20 in Bloemfontein to break the SA record for 1000m, beating Zola Budd by 0.7 seconds, and in March she finally broke the two-minute barrier in Stellenbosch when she stopped the clock on 1:59.39. “I remember working so hard for it, so it was special to be the first African woman to do that. But it was bittersweet, too. My father died two months before that, so when I crossed the line, I wanted to call him to tell him the news. Then I remembered I couldn’t, and I burst into tears.”
Out and Back
Because SA’s athletes were excluded from international competition in those years, Ilze decided that 1984 would be her last year in competitive athletics, because she could not see a long-term career in the sport, but she still wanted to break 1:57. So, in January that year she started her training earlier than before, determined to finish on a high note, until disaster struck. “I knew I was blessed with speed, and God gave me that talent, but one day on the track in Bloem a girl accidentally hit me on my Achilles with a discus. That was me out… I couldn’t run anymore!”
So Ilze went into teaching, then met and married American runner Ray Wicksell in 1988 when he came out to SA to compete, and a year later he convinced her to resume training after her first daughter Eugenie’s birth in 1989. “I couldn’t even run one kay after the baby! But the fact that I was running for Tuks and they gave me a little incentive to run for the club, helped me push on,” she says. Then in 1993, ten years after breaking two minutes and after seven years out of competitive running, Ilze won another 800m national title in 2:02. That took her to her first international competition at the African Champs in Mauritius at age 34, where she grabbed the bronze medal in the 800m. “After that I went to Germany to compete in a few meets, and I remember that because I ran barefoot and I was skinny, the international guys thought I was Zola Budd!” she recalls. “But my times stuck to 2:02, and it took me longer to recover, so I knew I had to slow down.”
Coaching the Future
After the birth of her youngest daughter Stephanie, Ilze returned to training and scored a win in the 800m at the World Veteran Champs in 1997. By then she knew that she would always be involved in athletics, and was working for Rentmeester Life Insurance, managing their Comrades Marathon runners, then became a manager and spokesperson for Liberty Nike Athletics Club in later years while working on developing young athletes in Atteridgeville and Eersterust in Pretoria. Then around 16 years ago, she started coaching middle distance at Menlo Park High School, and for the past eight years she has also been the manager of archery, badminton, canoeing, fencing, judo, rowing and wrestling at the Sports Centre at the University of Pretoria.
With both daughters also keen runners, having earned SA colours and competed at the World Youth Games, Ilze is happy to have brought them up in an active, healthy family environment, and she herself still runs a few times a week, because she says it keeps her mind in check while keeping her slim and healthy. She did try her hand at racing on the road some years back, but her body was no longer up to the challenge. “I thought I’d focus on 10km races, because I was not quick anymore, but my arthritis made it hard to walk properly, never mind run! That was my competitive days done.”
Today, Ilze is determined to carry on coaching and investing in talented young athletes, and wants to see sport become a priority in every student’s lifestyle. “As a coach, you’re a champ in my eyes if you set a goal and reach it. Sport translates to everything else in life – if you’re going to be a mother one day, a father, an employee – it determines who you will be.” Looking back on her running days, she says many things stand out as highlights: “That sub-2:00, beating Zola Budd to that 1000m record, my daughters and my family. My life is full because of that, and what sport has given me in all areas of my life.”