Onthathile Zulu is ready to spread her wings

Published Jun 19, 2023


SA hockey player and Red Bull ambassador Onthatile Zulu. Picture: Supplied

AN Olympic athlete, a marketing graduate and a proud national hockey player, Onthatile Zulu, the Pretoria-born athlete, is on a positive career trajectory after she and her team’s performance at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England.

An ambitious go-getter, Zulu, 23, is the definition of dynamite in a small package, with her bubbly energy and infectious smile. The player made her international debut in 2019 during a qualifying event in Stellenbosch for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She made her Olympic debut on July 24, 2021 against Ireland in the Pool A match.

Although being a professional hockey player was not on the cards, when she had to choose between hockey, swimming and athletics in high school, Zulu decided to stick with hockey, which has brought many positive outcomes.

Zulu’s growth captured the attention of many, especially that of energy drink Red Bull. Red Bull made her their first South African woman and first hockey ambassador following her performance on the international hockey astro turf.

She joins fellow Olympian debutant skateboarder Brandon Valjalo, MotoGP racer Brad Binder, cricket player Kagiso Rabada, obstacle course racing athlete Thomas van Tonder, former surfing champion Jordy Smith, national World Cup winning rugby captain Siya Kolisi, and current Dutch Formula 1 World Champion Max Verstappen.

“I feel special because Red Bull is generally associated with adrenaline sports, and I'm the first woman without an extreme sport, so I’m basically the odd one out. It’s an experience and I am excited to see where it goes,” Zulu said.

One of the biggest positives out of her ambassador role is the support and alleviated stresses on “external factors” as Zulu described, related to her hockey training and expenses. It is commonly known, locally, that hockey is underfunded, even though it has a prominent presence on the international stage.

Ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, both men and women hockey teams had to raise funds through public and private sponsorships on top of the little support received from the Department of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture.

“I don’t have to worry about any external factors. I can focus on my performance, elevate my performance and improve my skills. I don’t have to focus on finances, asking my mom for money to fund me for the next tournament or buy me a new hockey stick. It’s amazing to have the support I’ve gotten. I never thought I’d get it because hockey in general is an underfunded sport in South Africa.

“There’s no recognition, there’s no visibility. You’re looking at rugby, cricket in South Africa, everyone watches that. If you compare that to hockey, it’s actually ridiculous. So you can imagine, if I’m partnered with Red Bull, this not only exposes women in sport, but also my sports code, which is a big deal. This might even motivate young girls and people to pick up a hockey stick and start playing. It’s motivating me,” she said.

The midfield player excitedly shared the details of the national team’s training schedule ahead of qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics. This included information on her first international block training starting in South America.

“I’m going to be in Chile for the first camp, then I have to fly back for my graduation, then after my graduation I’m flying to South Korea. This year is full of world tours, which I am very grateful for.

“I’m definitely excited because Paris 2024 will have spectators. Tokyo 2020 Olympics didn’t have spectators, it was very sad, because of the Covid conditions. It would be amazing to have some of my family members supporting me in the stands, that just makes it extra special. Hopefully I make the team,” she said.

Zulu expressed gratitude for her support structure and team-mates who helped her to retain her position on the national women’s team and graduate from university. She admitted that her future won’t all be roses, with hockey players often taking up full-time jobs to support themselves, but she hopes the partnership and her hard work will pay off.

Zulu added that the partnership will also help to streamline her focus through hockey to create her own business and academy in the future for young and hopeful female hockey players.

“That is something I feel I need to do because I’ve been getting so many messages from girls who say that I inspire them, and as much as it was overwhelming, it was something to know that I am impacting their lives,”Zulu said.