IT MIGHT have been by complete chance that Blanche Moila took up running in 1980, but since then the accolades and acknowledgements earned through her prowess as an athlete have been no fluke.
Earlier this month, Moila, 67, enjoyed another lap of honour when she got inducted into the gsport4Girls Hall of Fame, and now counted among some of the country’s leading women sports personalities to have landed the honour.
The usually coy Moila received more adulation when the country’s A-listed Momentum gsports awards function happened in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
Multiple national titles over a range of running distances on roads, tracks and cross country routes, some in record times, are the achievements of an athlete who never leaves home without her trademark white doek.
While Moila’s headdress choice is a sure attention grabber, she will always be remembered for her groundbreaking effort of achieving Springbok colours in 1984, at a time when it was unfashionable for women of colour to earn national team caps.
The accolades kept pouring in thereafter and she also beat another running dynamo, Zola Budd, to the SA Sportswoman of the Year award in 1985.
The State President’s award for lifetime achievement in 2001, Shoprite Checkers’ Woman of the Year in 2002 and becoming the 2004 face of the Comrades Marathon were some of the other honours that came her way.
Middle-distance running was her forte before she bowed out of competitive athletics in the late 1990s.
However, Moila’s running shoes were required to cover more ground thereafter, having since completed 19 Comrades Marathons, with her latest finish being in June.
Moila, a retired psychiatric nurse, is no longer able to dash through a kilometre in three minutes as she did in her prime, but her zest to run has never dipped.
She does daily training runs and often participates in races to maintain her sharpness or in support of charities she’s affiliated to.
“Running is the first thing I think about when I wake in the morning. I put on my running shoes and go out for a run.
“Running keeps me healthy and I get to meet many happy people at races, the camaraderie in the sport is second to none.”
Moila attributes her running successes to her genes. “I picked my parents (Georginia-Nelly and Benjamin),” she quipped.
The Polokwane-born Moila later relocated to Durban to make strides in her chosen profession as a psychiatric nurse.
“Mental health is close to my heart, its stigma is less now than before. We live in a stressful world, so everyone needs therapy at some stage.”
Moila said “expectation” was the thing that weighed heavily on her mind during her prime running years.
“Being the only female of colour running at the highest levels in the 1980s was much to handle. Communities expected me to excel every time I ran. That was the stress.”
But Moila was able to take the pressure in her stride, enjoyed her runs, bagged many wins and set records on some occasions.
Achieving Springbok colours was a career high for Moila and she appreciated its potential to inspire other youngsters. “At the time I used to visit schools to motivate children to embrace a holistic approach to life.”
Another “satisfying” Moila memory was winning the SA national 10km title during a run in Pretoria in 1984. A strong field was assembled that included the likes of Elana Meyer, Colleen de Reuck (née Lindeque) and Sonja Laxton.
During the race, through the streets of Pretoria, she heard some unruly students make nasty comments.
“They said (in Afrikaans) I shouldn’t be running ahead of the madams … That victory was sweet because of those negative comments. My Christian beliefs weren’t going to let me retaliate in anger to the negativity. I let my legs do the talking.”
Moila said she appreciated all the fan support she got. Unlike present times, huge crowds attended athletics events and some of her biggest admirers were from faraway places.
“I learned that people on Robben Island were watching me on TV. Former minister Jeff Radebe told me he and others screamed and shouted for me when I ran. I was their little princess. I didn’t expect that.”
This was confirmed when she received the President's Award from both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.
Her friend and mentor, Dr Shorty Moola, who worked with her in the psychiatric unit at Fort Napier, introduced her to running.
Moola, who has since died, noticed her economic running style at a sports day event held for staff and patients, which she entered by chance.
“Doctor Moola invited me to a training run. I was about 21 at the time. I never ran at school and I didn’t even know that competitive running existed.”
Moola encouraged her and registered her as a runner for a 21km night race in Pietermaritzburg. When she placed third, people became sceptical and murmured that she might have not run the full distance.
“They didn’t know me. About three months later, I ran in a ladies 10km race in Durban and I finished third. That’s when people realised I was legit.”
Moila said she was excited and humbled by her induction into the gsport Hall of Fame.
Kass Naidoo, founder of gsport4girls, said: “In the Year of Women’s Sport when the big talk is the commercialisation of women’s sport, we pay tribute to Blanche for attracting a sponsorship from Nike nearly 40 years ago, to lead the way as leading ambassadors in sport.”
On her running longevity, Molia spoke about a balance in routine and maintaining a good diet. She also acknowledged the work done by Dr Vilash Boodhoo, her chiropractor for many years.
“I have been working on her for more than 20 years. Blanche takes her running serious and makes every effort to ensure she’s fit, which includes coming in for treatment before and after her runs,” said Boodhoo.
“For Blanche, rest is not in her vocabulary. She runs every day and receives specialised treatment because she’s a high-end athlete,” he added.