Never say Die
Deur Manfred Seidler
Gelaai op 22 September 2008
If you had met Yolana Du Plessis 4 months ago you would never have believed that here was someone who has been identified as a future Olympian and possible Gold Medalist. Yolana would sit alone in a corner at the Time Out Cafť at the High Performance Centre on University of Pretoria Grounds and almost avoid everybody.
“I was in such a bad place. I just wanted to be left alone and not have anything to do with Swimming. But by the same token I missed it so much; the frustration about not being to train and compete was incredible.”
How did a potential superstar who had at the age of 19 already traveled to places most of us only dream about fallen from these lofty heights to such low depths?
To find that out we need to go back a bit. Yolana was always a keen athlete. In fact at school she excelled in athletics, in particular the sprints before an ankle injury saw her move up to the 800m. She did dabble in swimming, but only when the ankle injury became worse did she focus her attention on the pool.
Her rise was almost meteoric as she swept all before her in the breaststroke. Ironically that was her only stroke, whereas all the other swimmers are more than proficient in a number of strokes. Her rapid improvement came when she hit high school. The Tuks Sport Combined School was where she met up with Igor Omeltchenko and from there she rapidly improved and trips abroad became the norm. In 2004 she swam an Olympic B-Qualifier at the age of 15. Clearly this was one girl with buckets of talent. The rewards came in 2007 when she was included in the Olympic Squad.
That changed her life quite dramatically. Now the swimming became more than an opportunity to travel. “I have always wanted to make a difference in life, which is why someday I want to work for the United Nations, but when I was put onto the Olympic Squad in 2007, everything changed. Your life is ruled by the sport and everything is geared towards that one opportunity (which in her case was 2008 Beijing). I had picked up an injury in 2006 in my lower back, but continued to swim and continued to improve but my back was in agony and no one could tell me what was wrong. It got so bad that at times I cried myself to sleep.” And now she was on the Olympic Squad! Things were building up to pressure cooker proportions
Yolana became really scared when at times she could not feel her legs. What made it worse is that due to the fact that no one could really identify the root of the problem, many felt she was faking the injury. “The pressure of competing at the level was just too much for her and that was why she was “faking” the injury. It was more psychological” is what people were saying. Despite traveling to Russia and Thailand to compete, Yolana was clearly not doing as expected. She was not improving. And the pressure to qualify for the Olympics was enourmous from close friends and family, but mostly from herself. It all came to a head in April this year at the National Championships when on the 5th day she panicked, as on the first lap of the 100m breaststroke she couldn’t feel her legs. Yolana finished the race but was clearly in no shape to continue. She was withdrawn from the rest of the Championships.
“I was devastated. I knew that meant that my hopes of competing in Beijing were over. It’s like your whole world crashes down on you. Everything you have worked for is over and you feel really lost. I stopped swimming, I gained weight, I withdrew from my friends, I even skipped lectures at varsity (Yolana is studying Sport Science on a Tuks Sports Scholarship). I was just so miserable.”
Yolana received amazing support from Steven Ball (Head Strength and Conditioning Specialist) who continued to encourage her and talk to her. In April she had practically quit swimming for all intents and purposes, although a doctor had booked her off swimming for 2 months, but she felt it was over. Gradually though the talks with Steven began to bear fruit and Yolana went back to the pool. Problem was she still did not know what the injury was and how to she was ever going to swim breaststroke again. It was after-all the only stroke she knew.
It was then that Igor convinced her to try the backstroke. Proof that Yolana is an athlete blessed with an abundance of talent is that she not only made the TUKS team to the SA Short Course Championships in Germiston from the 4-7 September, but she claimed the bronze medal in both the 50m and 100m backstroke and got to the Quarterfinals of the 50m Butterfly. And now there is a spring in her step again.
“It is amazing. After only swimming again for three months to get the Bronze in the 100m and 50m Backstroke is incredible.” With the comeback has come a new outlook on life. “I’m just so happy to be here. I have a permanent smile on my face. It is such an overwhelming experience and now I’m also going to the World Cup in Durban in October. 3 months ago I was disillusioned, now I am over the moon. One thing this period as taught me though. There is more to life than swimming and it has rekindled my dream of making a difference in people’s lives, but I know that I do not have to win an Olympic Medal to do that.” Not that Yolana has given up that dream. “After doing so well in the backstroke, I believe I can take down Charlene Wittstock's SA Record. And, I am refocusing on 2012. But I do know that there are other things in life that are important too, and that’s why I have again looked at my dream of working for the United Nations. Somewhere in Eastern Europe is where I want to be based. So when I finish my Sport Science Studies, I will start political science.”
Yolana is still undergoing rehabilitation, but has a new lease on life. Now if she does go on to compete at the 2012 Games in London, never mind win a medal, and then we can honestly say that Fairy Tales do come true.