Zola Budd: older, wiser, still very fast
I find her standing alone, chatting on her cellphone with her back to me, and I can tell instantly it’s Zola Budd. She’s still that scrawny runner with a slightly forward stoop, chicken-wing arms and inimitable pigeon-toed gait.
She’s 45 now, with a slightly thicker middle, a few pepper streaks in her chestnut boy-style hair and the expected timelines on her face, but she’s still that jeans, T-shirt and takkie girl with a shy smile and modest demeanour.
Budd is a legend in South Africa, of course, and minibus taxis are still nicknamed after her in deference to her speed.
It was in 1984 that, at only 17, she was catapulted into the headlines when she broke the women’s 5 000m world record. In less than three years she twice broke this record – running barefoot.
She was also twice the winner at the World Cross Country Championship in the UK. And who among the baby boomers can forget the dramatic, controversial collision with Mary Decker-Slaney, an American athlete, in the women’s 3 000m final at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984?
Budd was originally disqualified, but was later reinstated when it became clear that the collision had been an accident. She finished the race in seventh place.
She has since broken, and still holds, many other records and often runs in major overseas events. Yet here in her own country we rarely hear of her, primarily because for the last four years, Budd has been living in the US, in Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, with her businessman husband, Mike Pieterse, and their three children.
So it was a treat to find her attending a Johannesburg Press Club event where she picked up a Press Club trophy which was supposed to have been presented to her in 1984, but because the trophy-maker “disappeared” with the artefact, she never received it.
Now, 28 years later, that circle has been completed with the presentation of the trophy.
But she’s also here to promote Newton running shoes, which apparently simulate the barefoot running for which she is famous.
She has also entered the Comrades Marathon for the first time, and will be on the starting line in June. So she’ll be back in the country in April to train for it. Believe it or not, she finds the prospect daunting.
“I’m a middle-distance runner, so even a half marathon is a challenge for me. I’m right out of my comfort zone. I’ve been told the race only starts at 60km, so it’s going to take a lot of training,” she says, modest as ever. In fact, she competes relatively little nowadays.
“Running took a back seat when my kids were born. These days I do it for myself, and I set my own goals. I started doing triathlons a while back, but I always come back to running. It’s addictive,” she says.
The last big run she took part in was December’s Kiawah marathon in Charleston, South Carolina, which she finished in three hours, one minute and 51 seconds (fourth place), qualifying her for this year’s Comrades.
Budd is still a strong, blisteringly fast runner at 45, but admits it takes much more of a toll on her body. “I could go on forever when I was 18. Now it takes two or three days to recover after a long run,” she says. And yes, she still likes to run barefoot, but only occasionally when out training on the track. “I wear trainers 90 percent of the time,” she smiles.
Until she left for the US in 2008, Budd and Mike, whom she married in 1989, lived in her home town of Bloemfontein. The main reason they went to the US was so Budd could compete on the American masters circuit. “It was also a good opportunity for the kids (Lisa, 16, and twins Michael and Azelle, 13) to experience a different country and life.”
Though she “loves living there”, Budd says she “really misses South Africa”.
“I think if you’re born here you have an African soul. I will always be a Free State girl, and at home we still only speak Afrikaans,” she says.
An assistant coach at Coastal Carolina University, Budd recently completed a Master’s in pastoral counselling. She and her husband are involved in the development and marketing of Newton running shoes, and Budd is a keen on quilting. So, between parenting, work and running, life in the US is busy.
She and her husband still have a furnished home in Bloemfontein, however, and Mike has businesses there, a garage and a restaurant, so their stay in the America is not permanent. “We are thinking of coming back in December, but it depends on the kids. My daughter has the opportunity to get a scholarship,” she says, adding with a self-deprecating laugh: “It’s an academic scholarship. That doesn’t come from me.”
For Budd, one of the most noticeable differences about living in the US is that there is no competitive sport until high school. “South Africans are privileged to be able to compete in sport from an early age,” she says. On the other hand, one of the aspects of American living she does appreciate is “people are respectful of the law and the police”.
“They are very law abiding. They keep to the speed limits and observe the traffic laws. It would be good if we could do more of the same in South Africa.”
Another bonus to living abroad is that she’s anonymous. “No one recognises me there. It’s very nice,” she smiles, shyly.
It’s little wonder that Budd is averse to fanfare, because although her name is synonymous with legendary sporting achievement, it was no easy ride. Her fame back then brought vilification for breaking the sports boycott and not denouncing apartheid when her critics demanded it.
And the Mary Decker-Slaney incident took a terrible toll on the young runner, because even though she was vindicated, she was booed and vilified in the US for ending the American’s Olympic dreams, catching the flight home under armed guard.
It’s perhaps why she’s not too keen on her children following in her sprinting footsteps. Although her daughter runs cross-country, Budd says cryptically: “I will encourage them to be busy, but never to be competitive runners. Life is too short and there are just too many other things to do.”