Until three weeks ago, the 27-year-old had never picked up a rugby ball in her life, yet she has set her sights on playing for the Springbok Women’s Sevens team and competing with them at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“I have watched some rugby here and there, but I have never played the sport, neither did I ever imagine playing it in my life.”
Conley, one of South Africa’s most accomplished sprinters, recently took the bold decision to put her athletics career on hold to chase after a spot on the Springbok Women’s Sevens team.
She was contacted by Springbok Women’s Sevens coach, Paul Delport, and strength and conditioning coach Timothy Qumbu, who insisted on Conley trying out for the team even though she had never played rugby .
“I was approached by Paul last year. He basically said they need speed in the team and asked whether I would be interested in joining the team. At first, I wasn’t interested at all. But then last month, Timothy contacted me again and insisted we meet. I thought about it for a bit and decided that maybe I should just give it a shot.”
Last month, the former Mondeor High School pupil joined the Springbok Women’s Sevens camp for the first time and got a taste of what it was like to be a Bok.
“The girls are awesome. I’ve never been in a team sport before, so I was very anxious about how they would welcome me, how they would feel about me being there and all that. I went into the experience very open-minded, as I just wanted to learn as much as possible from them.
“They took their time to teach me extra passing, gave me advice and we had good conversations. In training, they would motivate me. I fell a couple of times during training, but they helped me up and encouraged me to continue.”
No sportswoman in South Africa has ever been successful in transitioning from one sport to another. South African heptathlete, Janice Josephs, tried out for the women’s sevens team but wasn’t successful.
“It’s a crazy decision. I’ve been in athletics for 21 years, and I guess I got to a point where my career just hit a plateau, my training hit a plateau, and I needed a new challenge,” says Conley. “For now the running will take a back seat. I think it’s what I need.”
Conley, who won silver in the 200m at the 2016 African Championships, has also enlisted the help of Gary Crookes, the founder of ShadowBall, a scientifically tested rugby ball which allows you to practise your rugby passing skills, former Golden Lions winger and ShadowBall ambassador Selom Gavor, as well as former Springbok and ShadowBall ambassador Gcobani Bobo, to help her develop and improve her rugby skills.
“There is plenty of catching up I need to do,” says Conley. “In rugby, there’s a lot of skill involved. I can’t just be sprinting past the ball. While I may have the speed, I don’t have the skill to go with it and that’s not going to help the team.
“It’s about putting those two things together, letting them gel well together and nailing down a place in the team.”
Having trained with the Boks once already, Conley describes it as the “toughest thing she has done in her life”.
“To put it lightly, training is like death. The amount of running you do is ridiculous. It’s much harder than athletics. With athletics, I did one session a day. With rugby, we do four sessions with barely any rest in between.
“But I’m enjoying the challenge. Some days I question why I’m doing such a thing because it’s so difficult.”
Conley is not nervous, though. “I’m anxious about whether I’ll be fit enough, whether I grasp the skill well enough in time to make the squad for Olympic qualifications, but I’m excited as well to see what I can do with my talent and capabilities.
“I always like challenging myself and pushing limits I joke about it and say maybe it’s preparing me for the 400m later on. We’ll see, who knows,” she says.