Most people sipping cappuccinos or cocktails at the Cabana Lounge in uMhlanga are unaware that the owner and hostess of this colourful, relaxing venue was South Africa’s gymnastics darling of the 70s, Debbie Bingham.
Now 53, Debbie Nicolson looks every bit the well groomed, personable businesswoman – and her elfin features, toned body and statuesque posture reflect the years of training and exceptional talent that made her a household name in South Africa and saw her grabbing headlines in national newspapers.
Today, however, she likes to fly below the radar, and is only too happy not to be recognised and simply to enjoy being in the hospitality industry.
With the Olympics just weeks away, Debbie will be watching the gymnasts on the big screen in the lounge, no doubt a bit wistful that she never got the chance to participate – South Africa was banned from participation during much of the apartheid era.
And no doubt memories of her short and dazzling gymnastics career will be not far from her mind.
In the lush courtyard of the lounge, she spoke candidly of her time as a Springbok gymnast, her passion for the sport, the events that led to her quitting at 17 and almost losing her life to anorexia.
“It was tough and the pressure was immense, but I would do it all again,” she says.
She remembers how she was introduced to the sport.
“As a child, I loved to move. I was always jumping and doing cartwheels and my PE teacher at school suggested I take up gymnastics. So, at the age of nine, I joined the Tech Gym Club. Soon I was attending three classes a week and my mother would drive me into town and wait with my two sisters (who were so patient, as this went on for years) while I was in class.”
Her gym instructor saw exceptional talent and told the Binghams that their daughter’s best opportunity was to go to Johannesburg and train under South African team coach Nellie Synman. Derrick and Wendy Bingham made the difficult decision to pack their daughter off to Johannesburg at the age of 14 for intensive training.
“I lived with various families, attending various schools, besides spending several hours in the gym every day. It was tough and I realise now that I missed out on being a normal teenager.”
They were, however, her glory years as a gymnast and she travelled to many countries with the national team to represent South Africa at international competitions, frequently coming home with medals and trophies.
At 16 Debbie returned to Durban and tried to motivate and coach herself. However, to retain her position in the Springbok team she was forced to return to Johannesburg, finally matriculating at Northview High in 1976.
She quit gymnastics the same year, at the age of 17.
“I lost my drive and passion for high-level competition and never walked back into the gym for years, until I returned as a coach,” she says.
A career in entertainment beckoned. She got a part in the movie Winners 2 and made her stage debut in Taubie Kushlick’s Director of the Opera, but beneath the glamour and accolades, Debbie was waging a battle with anorexia.
Pressure to be thin for her sport – gymnasts were weighed every Monday – had taken its toll. Debbie had felt her life in the spotlight was becoming increasingly beyond her control, and, like most anorexics, eating was something she could control.
“Anorexia is a disease of deceit and my greatest fear was of getting fat. I learnt to hide food and to lie about what I was eating. I would eat in front of people, then purge. I became obsessed with myself. When you train five hours a day, seven days a week, you become obsessed with yourself and this is where the dangers begin.”
She returned to Durban and when her weight plummeted to 38kg she was hospitalised. It took two years for her to recover and she credits the love and support of her parents for her survival.
But after giving up gymnastics, she had time on her hands and friends introduced her to marijuana. She was charged with possession in 1984 and given a four-month suspended sentence. It was a turning point and she decided to clean up her life and return to gymnastics as a coach.
She married Thomas Nicolson and moved to the US where she had two daughters, Yazmine and Jamaica, now 25 and 23. She coached gymnastics in the US before the family returned to South Africa in 1994.
Today she is happily settled in Ballito, she gives talks to young people on the dangers of anorexia and drugs, and emphasises that the youth must have access to support systems.
“I could not have recovered on my own,” she says, confirming her strong Christian faith.
For the past year Debbie has run Cabana Lounge.
“My first job was at Cabana Beach Hotel in 1977. Tourists came in droves and it was the tallest building in uMhlanga! Now I am here again – life has come full circle.”
The lounge is a cheerful coffee shop by day and cocktail lounge by night. Debbie, whose passion is entertainment, would like to see it used for supper theatres, Sunday brunches, book club get-togethers, family functions – any occasion that needs an ambient venue.