Ready to tear up the world track

Justine Palframan. (Gallo)

Justine Palframan. (Gallo)

Last weekend, Simon Makagwe became the first South African to break the sub-10 second barrier in the 100m at the South African Athletics Championships in Pretoria.

His performance – 9.98 seconds, breaking a record he previously held jointly with Johan Rossouw – understandably dominated media coverage of the championships.

But, a week later, it's also important to highlight the performances of two young women who emerged victorious in the women's sprint events: Nabeela Parker (100m) and Justine Palframan (200m and 400m).

Palframan, who is just 20 years old, ran 32.48 seconds in the 400m and her personal best time of 23.11 seconds in the 200m, making her a contender for a place in the South African team for the African senior championships, which take place in Morocco later this year.

She has worked hard to get here, moving from KwaZulu-Natal, where she grew up, running from the age of nine, to take up a sports bursary at the University of Stellenbosch, where she is currently a second-year sports science student.

Nabeela Parker. (Gallo)

"I'm really happy with the double gold," Palframan said. "It was the best time I ran in two years for the 400m and I PB'ed [personal best] in the 200m. I was injured from November till early February and, from then, I had to train really hard."

Palframan's times qualify her for participation in the African championships but she will have to wait to see if she makes the team. But she is not being complacent. "If you get the qualifying times and are consistent, they'll take you. We'll just have to wait to make sure," she said.

"I'm working up to it, though. I'm probably going to run in Europe, and I'm training hard. I want to make sure we are prepared for competition."

She added that she believed South African women sprinters have what it takes to excel on the international athletics stage.

"We are putting in the hard work – we just have to focus and train harder."

Parker (19), South African's newest 100m women's champion, ran her personal best time of 11.68 seconds in the championships semifinal, and 11.78 in the final, still a long way off from the African championship qualifying time of 11.45. But she is working hard to better her times in her remaining events on the varsity sports circuit, in which the top eight athletics universities battle it out against each other.

"I have still got three more varsity athletics legs to run and, aside from that, there's the university champs, which is a nice big competition. I'm hoping from now till then I can get my times down and still be considered for the African champs. I think I'm worthy, I think I'm an athlete," she said.

Parker believes that, although South African athletes have the talent, something else is needed in order to get them to the level at which they can excel on the international circuit.

"There are a few like Khotso Mokoena and Caster Semenya who have really excelled," she said. "I don't think it's possible for many South African athletes to give everything up and make athletics a priority. You have to study, you have to work.

"The issue of sponsorship is so vague here: sponsors don't always give you money to stay alive – they give you clothing and shoes. So it's not always possible to give everything up for athletics."

"I once had a conversation with a British woman who came to train here and I asked her what her job is. She said, ‘athletics'.

"South Africans don't have the ability to say that. It's much harder for us because we have to work and study. The right kind of sponsorships will surely change that."

In Parker's case, there are two personal aspects that could also pose a challenge in the world of athletics, although she has taken them in her stride: she is a Muslim and also suffers from lipodystrophy, a medical condition that, in her case, has resulted in diabetes and rapid muscle growth from an early age.

It would seem that she spends hours in the gym, bulking up, or that she's on steroids, but she doesn't train with weights at all. This has had scary implications.

"I realised there would be question marks when I was 12. I was dope tested for the first time during a primary school championship. It was very scary; I didn't realise why until they questioned me [about my physique]. I myself couldn't give them a reason as I hadn't been diagnosed at the time."

But these days it's like water off a duck's back. "Not even guys have muscles like mine, so there were always going to be question marks since I came on to the scene. I have muscles everywhere – on my arms and my legs – but I know I'm not using, so I just laugh it off."

Parker is also a practising Muslim. She doesn't drink alcohol and eats only halal food, and she says her religion comes before everything else. This obviously raises the question of attire, because Islam dictates that Muslim women must cover their bodies in loose-fitting clothing.

She said she tries to make sense of this in her own way, wearing shorts and a vest only when she's running a race, and covering herself immediately afterwards.

"I understand that, when I'm running, all eyes are on me. But I'm not running to flaunt my body or so that people can watch my body. I'm running because it's what makes me happy and that's the talent that God has given me."

She said that the Muslim community has been largely supportive, and her attitude to the odd person who has criticised her has been resolute.

"I think we were all sent here for a purpose; everybody has something they need to be doing whilst they are still living. I don't believe I would have been given a gift this big if I was meant to muffle it. Allah has given me that ability. I am winning because he's given me that ability. I'm not chasing it so I feel it's meant for me.

"I know people are going to be judgmental and say things I don't want to hear, but it's a two-way process between me and my creator. I have understood this to be my gift and I'm going to take it the way I want to.

"And it's bigger than me, and bigger than what everyone else can say."

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