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From clay brick factory to marathon record holder

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Gert Thys, the current South African Marathon record holder, embarked on a remarkable journey in the small town of Prieska.

Born and raised in the humble town of Prieska, Gert Thys sculpted his running career one kilometre at a time, and after 25 years, he still holds the South African Marathon record. Picture: Supplied

Gert Thys, the current South African Marathon record holder, embarked on a remarkable journey in the small town of Prieska.

Born and raised in this humble town, Thys’s path into the world of running was ignited during the school inter-house competition in 1984. Witnessing a schoolmate effortlessly outpace others on the track sparked a determination within him. “I made a solemn pledge to join the athletic arena the following year,” Thys recalls, reflecting on his humble beginnings.

In 1985, Thys found himself competing against a friend who had dominated the previous year’s event. Remarkably, he managed to outshine his competitor in the 3,000-metre race. However, fate intervened as his friend transferred to Upington that same year, altering the course of Thys’s athletic journey. Despite this twist of fate, Thys’s passion for running continued to burn brightly.

His involvement in athletics initially stemmed from a casual interest in school activities. However, destiny led him to participate in a marathon in Prieska at the tender age of 13, where he secured a junior accolade and a modest prize of R50. Yet, life posed numerous challenges for the young athlete.

To provide for himself and his family’s basic needs, Thys had to labour in a clay brick factory after school, earning a meagre income of 10 cents on regular days and R1 during school holidays.

Taxing lifestyle took a toll

The gruelling routine of lifting bricks and tending to donkeys became a staple of Thys’s daily existence. He dedicated the early morning hours before school to locating stray donkeys, which was essential for the day’s work to commence.

However, this taxing lifestyle took a toll on his health, leading to frequent visits to the Kimberley hospital from 1986 to 1988. It was during this period of medical scrutiny that Thys discovered he was at risk of developing a serious neurological condition due to the strain on his body.

“To alleviate the financial burden, I was enrolled in a government food programme with regular check-ups on my mental well-being,” Thys recalls. The threat of being separated from his family loomed large when social services hinted at intervention if his condition didn’t improve.

In response, Thys and his mother made the decision to leave the brick factory behind and seek employment at the owner’s shop, where he worked diligently to support his family.

Ultimately, faced with the harsh reality of their circumstances, they made the difficult decision to forego further schooling and enter the workforce. “This choice was born out of a deep sense of responsibility towards my family and a recognition of the opportunities sports presented as a means to alleviate our suffering,” he reflects.

Special pilgrimage

Thys’s journey through the realm of athletics was not without its challenges. As a newcomer to the world of sports, he faced initial hurdles, including a lack of recognition from sports administrations and peers. “Despite the challenges, moments of validation and appreciation eventually came,” Thys told the DFA.

Receiving acknowledgement for his efforts served as a reminder to remain dedicated and prepared to fulfil his dreams.

His journey led him to make a special pilgrimage to his hometown, where he met with his parents and had a memorable encounter with President Nelson Mandela.

“Such remarkable experiences underscore the transformative power of hard work and dedication in the realm of sports,” Thys remarks, reflecting on the impact of his journey on his life and roots.

Holding the South African record for the past 25 years fills Thys with immense pride, yet he recognises that records are meant to be surpassed. “I extend my heartfelt wishes for countless accomplishments, both on local and international stages,” Thys says, emphasising his aspirations for the future of South African athletics.

Gert Thys is seen crossing the line when he set his new record. Picture: Supplied

However, he acknowledges the unpredictable nature of the game and the challenges that lie ahead.

Despite the challenges he faced, Thys takes pride in every achievement he has attained. “It wasn’t a straightforward path – I had to coach myself, tend to my own medical and personal needs, and make tough decisions to pave the way for success in sports,” he reflects. His journey has been a testament to resilience and determination, shaping him into the athlete he is today.

Racial discrimination

Thys’s athletic journey also shed light on the darker aspects of sports, including the political landscape within athletics that subjected him to racial discrimination.

“There were moments when I contemplated walking away, but my love for my country and its people kept me tethered,” Thys admits. As an unwitting ambassador for his nation, he endured in silence to maintain the integrity of the sport.

Recognising his lack of formal education, Thys understood that his body and performance times became his credentials – a testament to his dedication to the sport. “In a field where a formal sporting education degree is often valued, I embraced the reality that without showcasing our talents at international levels, our presence would go unnoticed,” he remarks.

Thys’s aspirations extend beyond the track. Despite financial constraints, he envisions establishing his own line of sporting apparel, encompassing everything from running shoes to gear for sports like soccer and rugby. “This remains my foremost ambition, driven by a passion for both athletics and entrepreneurship,” Thys says, highlighting his determination to pursue his dreams beyond the realm of sports.

Resilience, determination, and commitment

In essence, Gert Thys’s journey from the clay brick factory to becoming South Africa’s marathon record holder is a testament to resilience, determination, and the unwavering commitment to represent his country on the global stage.

His story serves as an inspiration to aspiring athletes and underscores the transformative power of sports in overcoming adversity and shaping lives.

As Thys nears the completion of his ABBOT running journey, the next race on his agenda is the prestigious Berlin Marathon in September.

“Competing at such a high level comes with its own set of challenges, particularly regarding financial considerations,” Thys admits.

The costs associated with rigorous training – ranging from R200,000 to R350,000, depending on various factors such as fitness levels and training location – pose a significant obstacle.

Gert Thys’s journey exemplifies the resilience and determination required to overcome obstacles and achieve greatness in the realm of sports. As he continues to pursue his passion for running and entrepreneurship, his story serves as a beacon of inspiration for generations to come.

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