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26 Jul, 2010

Finding My One True Passion

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Finding My One True Passion

He had done it all – debt collector, waiter, salesman – before finding one of the best jobs in the country: Media and Communications Coordinator for the Comrades Marathon Association. Craig Fry has been around the block a couple of times but has found his one true passion: working in the sport industry. Craig shares his story with Modern Athlete.

SPORT, SPORT AND MORE SPORT!
I grew up in Pietermaritzburg and was keen on all sports. I excelled at hockey, cricket, soccer, athletics and golf. You could say sport has always been in my blood and is definitely my first love.

Needless to say studying was never my strong point and I just scraped through Matric! Though I did not like studying, I had a blast at school. To me going to school was a social occasion where you got to spend time with all your mates all day. It drove the teachers nuts, but hey, I had a good time!

THE REAL WORLD
My first year in the real world in 1994, a friend’s father offered me a job at his law firm in Pietermaritzburg. My role entailed finding debtors for the collections department. In 1995 I decided to move to Johannesburg to ‘make my fortunes’. I packed my bags, jumped onto a train and left. I didn’t know anyone, but at 19 you are invincible! I managed to get a job as a sales representative selling consumer goods. That was tough! Selling supermarket items to independent wholesalers and chain stores is where I cut my teeth in sales. After a while I got itchy feet and at the age of 21, I got on a plane to Los Angeles… I lasted three weeks and came home! I went crawling back to the girlfriend I left to go to the USA. Jobs were tough to find and I had to wait tables to make money. I then managed to secure a sales job with a textile firm.

THE DAY MY LIFE CHANGED
After I saw the movie Jerry Maguire, I knew right away that being in the sports business was right up my alley!

‘Take a chance and win a prize’, was my motto and I started working on my own. This was seriously hard work! It was hard to get clients; I was young, had no tertiary education in the sports business and not many people took me seriously!

I decided to venture into the cricket player management business, as I knew some of the provincial players at the time. I managed to sign up a few average players and started networking with companies in the cricket business. Luckily my girlfriend supported me at the time. She knew how passionate I was and gave me the opportunity to do this.

Then I met Ray Jennings who was the Easterns Head Coach. I became very close to Ray and I can honestly say that I learnt a tremendous amount from him. He is as tough as nails but always fair, so you always knew where you stood with him. I spent many afternoons at the practices with the team and management at Easterns Cricket treated me like I was part of the team. Andre Nel was then on the brink of selection to the national team and I ended up being involved with him for a few years thereafter.

DOING IT MY WAY!
Things were finally going my way. I met up with an Indian businessman who was close to the Indian National Team. He helped me financially to expand my business. This allowed me to travel to Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, England and Sri Lanka, negotiating various sponsorship contracts for cricket players. I was able to work with some of the game’s greatest players. I was having so much fun, and had to ask myself on occasions, is this seriously work? I was doing what I loved, and making money!

After a few bad decisions made purely out of ignorance, my wheels fell off and I was back to square one. But being me, when I believe in something I will exhaust all avenues and will do anything to make it work. Also, at the time I had a new lady in my life. She mentioned a couple of times that working for myself was not a real job and too risky.

I then got offered a job with Primedia Sport. Welcome to the soccer business. I took up a position with Signet Licensing and Marketing, primarily to look after the commercial and licensing programmes for Kaizer Chiefs Football Club. I remember my first meeting at Kaizer Chiefs. I met the Chairman and founder, Mr Kaizer Motuang, and after the meeting I thought to myself I can’t believe I just met with the Chairman! He is such a quiet and easygoing man, but an absolute giant in the football business.

I later moved on to being General Manager of Back Page Publishing and Sales Manager of Amakhosi Magazine. This was a great learning curve for me, working within a different part of the sports business. After Amakhosi Magazine, I entered into discussions with JAKE Productions, a marketing, entertainment and events management company. One of their major clients was Kaizer Chiefs! All in all I was within the Kaizer Chiefs family for seven years. Today I am still a passionate Chiefs supporter, and rarely miss watching them play!

MY COMRADES JOURNEY
I relocated back to KwaZulu-Natal after 13 years in Gauteng. With the passion for sport running through my veins, I applied for the Media and Communications position at the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) and was lucky enough to be appointed to work on this great event.

I was one of those people who used to say, “How is it possible to have to work all year round for a one day event?” Very soon after I started at the CMA I realized that there is no other way but to work all year round to put on a world-class event such as the Comrades Marathon.


This is what our year looks like:

  June - June is the month where we wrap up the previous race. I draft and send press releases to over 1 500 contacts on our media database locally, and to over 300 media companies across the globe. I also respond to queries from the various media houses with regards to pictures, results and potential stories from the race.
  July - In July I start planning a media strategy for the following year’s race, based on failures and successes from the previous race. We also compile and finalise the race results brochure. I work closely with the marketing department in order to communicate their strategies to the public. An important aspect is to monitor the media on a daily basis to make sure that what is being reported on Comrades is correct. I get these reports and make sure everything is above board. This means a lot of reading!
    August - This is the month where I start executing my media strategy. This means regular press releases packed with newsworthy items, sending out monthly newsletters, generating newspaper and magazine articles and the dissemination of general information.
    Closer to race day - As we get closer to race day (about two months before), things really get interesting. I put together the race souvenir brochure and schedule regular radio and television interviews for CMA officials and myself. This is the part of my job that is fun, but at the same time has its own pressures. As the official spokesperson for the CMA everyone wants to talk to you and it is imperative that I know everything that is going on within the organisation in order to be able to respond immediately with the correct information.
  Race week - Race week and the expo is by far the craziest time for me. From the Monday to race day on Sunday, I pretty much have a phone strapped to my ear. Added to this is managing the media centre at the expo and acting as MC for the various press conferences during this week. This year we had over 800 members of the media from all over the world reporting on race day. The service we offer journalists on race day cannot be compared to any other race in the world! We have two press trucks that seat 40 people, we allocate five Toyota Double Cab vehicles to take journalists and photographers on the route during the race, and 15 motorbikes are reserved for photographers. This is all done to ensure the media gets the best possible view of this magnificent race and to allow them to report in the best possible way. A media centre equipped with televisions, race computers and live, up-to-the-minute splits and information on runners and the race is set up at the finish line.


THE LONGEST DAY
I sometimes think it must be easier to run the race than work on race day (hang on, let me first run the race next year and then I will decide). On race day I spend the whole day, from 4am to 7pm, on my feet. My day involves managing the media on the route, assisting with queries in the media centre and going to and from the SABC broadcast booths. I also help with the placement of the photographers at the finish line. This usually becomes a bit of a fight between the guys, as they all want to be in the best position to get photos.

After the winners have crossed the finish line, I rush and prepare for the post-race press conference. This cannot run late as the SABC wants to shoot the winners on the stage for the prize-giving ceremony and when live TV is involved, you simply can’t run late. 

You would think once the winners are in things get easier, but now the media are looking for something else to report on… While I am doing all of this, the phone still rings with journalists who are not at the finish line and who want to be updated with information. 

THE DAY AFTER
If you asked me on Monday 31 May how I was doing, I probably responded with, “I’m done”, “I’m phoned out” or “I’m not doing this again!” But the truth be told, I arguably have the best job in the CMA. I basically get to talk all day about an event that I love and am part of, I get to talk on radio and TV, and most of all have a lot of fun while doing so. I get to interact with the elite athletes, dignitaries and the general public. I don’t see it as work, but as a great way to pass the time. I wouldn’t change my position for anything else right now.

INSPIRED TO RUN
After not exercising for almost 13 years, and being involved with Comrades, I decided last July to start running again. This was going to be tough. I had been smoking for almost 20 years and knew I was in for a rough ride. Being me, I set my sights high and decided to run the 2010 Old Mutual Two Oceans Ultra in sub-four hours (I must have been braindead). Being in my position at Comrades and having access to all the pro teams and coaches I made a few calls and got hold of John Hamlett, after reading an article on him in the Modern Athlete. John agreed to coach me.

So I started getting weekly training programmes and things started coming together. John is a crazier man than I am. He would call me at 5am and if I answered the phone, he would simply ask me why I wasn’t doing the training for that particular day before work. “Go train,” he would shout. One cannot fault the man for his passion, commitment and dedication to his athletes. John trains elite runners and he still found time for me, an average Joe, and gave me the same time and dedication as he would to his elite runners. Now that’s what a coach should be!

I trained properly and gave myself the best possible opportunity to succeed. My attitude was: if you don’t succeed, at least you know you gave yourself a fighting chance.

TWO OCEANS
On the day I passed Shaun Meiklejohn at about 7km saying, “Come on old man, let’s go!” It came back to bite me! Shaun passed me at about the 36km saying, “Who is your old man now?” What could I do but have a good chuckle? I was done! I missed my goal time, but it was a fantastic experience and I will have to go back next year.

Who knows, maybe I will just have to take the plunge and enter the Big C for 2011. Then at least when I talk about Comrades I can have a runner’s perspective of the race.

I take my hat off to every single person who actually attempts to run Comrades, and everyone who finishes within the 12-hour cut off is an exceptional athlete!

As for me, I try to live my life the best way I can. I suppose because I am a person who would rather give than receive, things seem to work out for me in one way or another. And when all else fails, I go for a run!