Free State Champions of the Fairer Sex
Over the years, South Africa’s heartland has produced some truly amazing women.
Is there something in the rarefied air of the Free State that makes world champions, Olympians, and women of such exceptional substance?
When the British aristocrat Emily Hobhouse came to South Africa (from Cornwall) to campaign against the Boer war, she centred her attention and her efforts on the Free State.
In 1913, Hobhouse addressed a Bloemfontein crowd as follows: “We in England are ourselves still but dunces in the great world-school, our leaders still struggling with the unlearned lesson, that liberty is the equal right and heritage of man, without distinction of race, class or sex. We, too, the great civilised nations of the world, are still but barbarians in our degree, so long as we continue to spend vast sums in killing or planning to kill each other for greed of land and gold.”
It was in coming to the golden Free State fields that Hobhouse educated herself in the ‘great world-school’ that is central South Africa, for from these selfsame pastures, and humble farmlands, many champions of the fairer sex have grown, and continue to shake the world stage.
Not long ago, Kimberley-born Karen Muir broke a world record in backstroke at age twelve. It was the year 1965 when the still very shy Muir became the youngest world record holder in any sport. The ‘Timid Torpedo’ as she was known, was catapulted onto the world’s stage.
For reference, Michael Phelps broke his first world record at the age of 15, and went on to break 32 more records. Karen Muir, who studied medicine at Free State University, and lived in King Edward Road in Bloemfontein for a spell, went on to break another 15 world records.
Other Free State-born Olympians have followed in her footsteps, such as Jeanine Steenkamp (swimming), Kate Roberts (triathlon), Lesley-Anne George (hockey, currently Proteas vice captain) and Pietie Coetzee (hockey). Pietie, who matriculated from Eunice Girls School in Bloemfontein, became the world’s leading goal scorer in hockey in June this year, eclipsing the 20-year record held by Russia’s Natalya Krasnikova.
Another Olympian, this time in tennis, is Amanda Coetzer, born in the Free State town of Hoopstad, the richest maize-producing region in South Africa. Nicknamed “The Little Assasin”, the diminutive but attractive Coetzer, who attended Oranje Meisies Skool, was ranked in the top 3 women’s tennis players in the world at one stage.
In 1996, at the Australian Open, Coetzer became the first South African woman to play in a semi final in the Open era. Three years later Amanda Coetzer became the only player ever to defeat the likes of Steffi Graf, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis whilst each of these players was ranked world number one. If Karen Muir is South Africa’s most famous and exceptional swimmer of all time, and Amanda Coetzer South Africa’s greatest tennis export to date, then Zola Budd is probably South Africa’s best ever athletics champion.
In fact, a few months ago Bloemfontein’s barefoot blitz left her Florida home to attend the South African Cross Country Championships, held on the sports grounds of the Free State University. The two time cross country world champion and world record holder in the 5000 metres is still running, and based on her last run in Bloemfontein a few weeks ago, still winning.
But the Free State has not only produced determined, strong limbed, talented champions; some of the world’s most beautiful women have sprung like cosmos from the Free State veld. Golden haired Vicki Fourie, Miss Deaf South Africa, is a motivational speaker, writer and model. In July last year, Fourie competed at the Miss Deaf International, in Las Vegas, and came away with 1st Princess.
Lieschen Botes, from Welkom, was an official Wonderbra girl in 2005, and featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2006. This year Sports Illustrated features 21-year-old Tayla Davis, from Bloemfontein in their latest swimsuit edition (photographed in the Seychelles). The magazine quotes Davis as saying, “Even when certain things feel like a lost cause or failure, everything always seems top find its purpose.”
On the silver screen, Jeanne Neilson, another Eunice girl, played the lead in Faith Like Potatoes, and has since appeared in Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove, The Deal and the TV movie The Heart of Christmas. Roxy Meyer, who attended St. Michael’s School is currently studying on a swimming bursary at the University of Miami. Meyer, unusually, combines brawn (as the youngest ever qualifier for senior swimming nationals, at 11 years old) with beauty (she has appeared in a few local film productions, as well as Sports Illustrated).
The recent antics of stand up comic Anne Hirsch appeared recently in the local newspaper, Bloem News. In an article titled ‘From BFN to BBC’ the ex Bloemfonteiner, who won the SABC 2 stand up comic competition (So you think you are funny?) in 2009, is still going strong. Hirsch, who describes herself as “the only white woman to have ever performed as part of David Kau’s Blacks Only comedy tour” (to sold out audiences nationwide) has since appeared opposite British funny man Stephen Fry as his mad assistant in a new BBC TV movie called ‘The Borrowers’.
She describes Fry as “intimidating but wonderful”. “I learned as much as I could from him during the week of filming,” she adds. ‘The Borrowers’ airs on BBC1 in December. In business, Neleen Strauss has made a name for herself (and South Africa) through High Timber, a very trendy, up-market restaurant on the Thames in London. High Timber has been listed for several years now in the Michelin Guide.
Old Eunice girl Justine Pittaway, has recently been appointed Assistant Beauty Editor at Rooi Rose in Cape Town, one of the youngest appointments to this position. Lize Labuschagne, who went to school at Sentraal, won the award for South Africa’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2010.
Plenty of beautiful Bloemfontein girls have gone on to snap up modelling contracts in Cape Town and further afield, from Revlon launching Lynn de Bruyn (she was to later count German striker Jurgen Klinsman as her boyfriend) several years ago to current 15 year old Fichardtpark pupil, Jane Steenkamp who took part in the 2010 Europe-New model today competition and came 7th, has just been offered a modelling contract in Italy.
And while stars, and their mom’s (Carlyn Fisher and her mother Lynette are both current South African triathlon champions) are coming through the ranks of the Free State heartland all the time, it is worth considering that arguably South Africa’s most powerful woman politically, also hails from these humble soils.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, known as ‘the Mother of the Nation, once called the little town of Brandfort home. A movie on her life (simply titled ‘Winnie’), with American actress Jennifer Hudson playing the leading role under the direction of Darrell Roodt, will be released in Canada in December this year. That the great man Madiba chose his wife from South Africa’s heartland shows the man’s heart was in the right place.
This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as an advertorial supplement