Age is relative – just ask three local 70-somethings whose continued accolades in sports AND DANCE are inspiring young and old.
WORDS Corrie Erasmus PHOTOGRAPHS Melanie Maré
On the bike
“Sport keeps you young,” says 72-year-old cycling legend Willie Marx, who continues to compete and win medals in mountain bike and road races.
During the 2014 South African Track Championships he secured three medals in his age division – two gold and one silver. At the time of going to print, he was on his way to participate in the South African National Road Championships in February.
Better known these days for his bustling bike shop in York Street, Willie once was South African national track champion no less than seven times and was headhunted for the Dutch Amstel Beer team to compete in the Tour de France at the age of 18.
“I competed in the world championships in Holland that year and came third. After five days of racing, my teammates returned to South Africa, but I was approached to stay behind and ride for Holland,” he says.
Eventually, Willie stayed for three years and cycled the world on fire.
He broke British cycling hero Sir Reg Harris’ quarter mile record and was honoured for this achievement by being invited to Buckingham Palace for tea and scones. “I didn’t meet the Queen though,” he smiles.
Willie returned to South Africa to pursue studies and a career in electronics, but after a bad cycling accident 35 years ago he sold his electronics business and opened a cycling shop in George, which is still flourishing today.
His dream is to go back to the world championships and become number one again. “If I can get a sponsor, I will practise very hard. I’m healthy and still have the drive and enthusiasm to do what it takes,” Willie says.
He cycles three times a week, doing 50 to 60km at a time, and takes a special remedy to prevent cramps, reduce stiffness and keep his blood clean. A local specialist who won a world award for his work developed this remedy.
What do people say when they hear he still cycles? Willie says: “It is always very positive and everyone encourages me to keep on doing this.”
Meet Marianne van der Merwe-van der Lecq, a veteran ballet dancer from Little Brak River.
At the seasoned age of 70, this remarkable former professional ballerina of the erstwhile PACT (Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal) is still dancing and enjoys every minute of it.
“I’m most grateful towards my Creator and feel very blessed to be able to still do what I love at my age,” Marianne says. “Also, it’s very special that my beloved mother, who recently turned 100, is still able to share my joy. She has always been my greatest supporter.”
After years of not dancing, Marianne took up classes again a few years ago. In 2014 she successfully completed the Royal Academy of Dance Grade 7 ballet examination. She performed the best in her group – comprising mostly teenagers – and received both a distinction and a gold medal.
Marianne explains her reasons for taking up dance again: “I went to a ladies tea one morning and met ballet teacher Mariki Viviers from Great Brak River. We started talking and the desire to do plié’s and pirouettes once more was suddenly there.”
Ever since she can remember Marianne says she was always dancing around the house. At the age of nine a family friend took her to the Johannesburg City Hall to see a ballet performance by an international star.
“I was totally enchanted and, having grown up in a home where we were exposed to music, literature and the arts, everything about that performance made an enormous impression on me.”
The cherry on top was when she met the prima ballerina, Tamara Toumanova, backstage and got her programme signed. The die was cast and soon afterwards she started ballet lessons. After school PACT asked her to join their ballet corps and Marianne soon became one of their solo dancers.
“My four years with PACT were some of the happiest and most fulfilling of my life. We were very privileged in the 1960s to work with some of the greatest international artists in the ballet world. Apart from performances in all the major cities in South Africa, we also had the privilege from time to time of touring the country to expose and educate those in remote areas about the arts.”
Marianne gave up her dancing career after getting married. Although she didn’t dance professionally any more she joined a dance group in Cape Town and took part in classes and performances. She called it quits in the 1990s but remained supple with Pilates, which stood her in good stead when she returned to ballet.
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to complete my first lesson with Mariki, but to my surprise I completed the lesson and was even able to do the jumps,” she laughs.
“Ballet is beneficial to the whole body, mind and spirit. I will keep on doing this for as long as I am able to. I feel revitalised after each class.”
According to Marianne, people’s reaction on hearing that she is still dancing at 70 is overwhelmingly positive. “To me, one of the joys that comes with ballet is to inspire people. Be grateful for your health, enjoy it and stay active.”
Not only is Oudtshoorn-based Toy Ungerer the South African women’s champion in her previous age division (65 – 69) in the 100m, 200m, 400m and long jump, she also won the gold medal in the 400m two years ago at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Brazil. Having recently turned 70, Toy is currently training hard to break at least the 400m in her new age category at the World Masters Championships in Australia later this year.
Toy says she excelled in athletics, netball and gymnastics as a child. She believes she inherited her talent from her father, Ernst du Plooy, a fine athlete in his own right. After school she went to the Oudtshoorn Teaching College, but didn’t continue with her running.
Her spectacular comeback to the world of athletics – 42 years after she had stopped running – started with a small advertisement in a local publication. “When I was 59 years old, I responded to an advertisement looking for volunteers to act as field marshals during the district masters championships, which were held in Oudtshoorn that year,” Toy says. “The organiser, Frans Kalp, convinced me to participate as well. I took the plunge, competed in the 100m and came second.”
This achievement marked the beginning of great things as Toy continued to participate in numerous big athletics events, including three world championships, harvesting medals and breaking records along the way. Besides being a dynamic athlete who practises for an hour and a half three times a week, she is also very involved with the administrative side of the sport.
Toy has been the chairperson of Athletics South Western Districts (ASWD), an affiliate of Athletics South Africa, for the past eight years. She also serves on ASWD’s track and field committee and is the vice-president of South Africa Masters Athletics (SAMA).
“My life has become so enriched in terms of experiences. Besides meeting and befriending people from all walks of life and from all over the world, I even became computer literate, being involved with the administration.”
Every athlete suffers injuries from time to time and Toy is no exception. She tries to eat according to her blood group in order to prevent the build-up of lactic acids and does ongoing research to help her perform better.
She says she has become very strong, physically and mentally. “It’s hard work, but the word ‘lekker’ (fun) is connected to every aspect.”
Her future goals include coaching other athletes. “I want to stay involved in athletics. It’s important that people know about masters athletics. Life doesn’t stop just because you are growing older. I want to motivate others to become active and enjoy their life. Set yourself goals and don’t wait, just do it!”