Beyond The Legend (2010)
Zola Budd: There is a person behind that legendary name.
I know I don’t need to tell you her story. Any runner over 40, anywhere in the world, knows it.
You may remember the slight (then 5’2”, 84 pounds), curly-haired runner racing, elbow to elbow with another on the track in the midst of thousands in the Olympic stadium.
We know she was a phenom among runners when younger than most: that in 1984, at just 17, she broke the woman’s 5000 meter world record in a jaw-dropping time of 15:01.83; that she was such a prodigy that her junior world records in the mile and the 3K still hold today, 25 years later; that she won two world cross country championships; and that she ran a signature style – barefoot, just as she had growing up in the South African countryside, occasionally running amongst ostriches.
We know that her running talent was so great and times were such that she became a public figure, still a child, caught in global political turmoil: that she became a power to possess and a symbol of the conflict over apartheid and a pawn between countries.
We know that athletic accidents happen routinely in life but are magnified on the Olympic stage, and that that her collision with Mary Decker Slaney in the 1984 Olympics was the subject of controversy for decades later. And we know that despite worldwide media attention, she endured the sometimes troubled limelight with quiet dignity – still a private person, a talent who simply loves to run.
Her talent, the times, and the collision have melded and mellowed by now into the legend of Zola. The legend and images are so strong that it’s hard to picture her today – just as it’s hard to picture Shirley Temple as someone other than the dancing girl with curls.
I mentioned I was writing a piece on Zola to a few world champions of her time – Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton and world cross country champion Lesley Welsh Lehane, now in their forties and no longer racing. Their response was the same and immediate: “I would love to meet her.”
“If there would be one runner to meet, it would be Zola. She’d be the runner first on my list – not just for her running,” said Favor Hamilton. “She’s been through what most of us would never understand. It’d be great to tell her she’s been a fabulous person. As kids we would take our shoes off and say ‘Let’s be Zola Budd!’ She’s an icon.
“She was so good, so young. She was amazing. Nobody was that fast that young. I don’t know if she realizes how many people admire her and what a legend she is. We want to know what’s really her – to hear her story.”
Legends are stories. But life is real. We want to find the person behind the legend, like the person behind the Wizard of Oz. While she is of course running (it’s always been her passion), this first article focuses on her life today – a life that’s actually normal, so different from her illustrious past. The next article will tell about her running today, and how that has changed.
Her Life Today
Clearly, Zola has moved on. She’s never watched the video of her collision in Los Angeles, one of the most-watched sports videos of all time. She’s been to Los Angeles twice since those Olympics, and she didn’t visit the Coliseum.
Now 43, Zola is living with her husband and three children not in South Africa, where she had been living since the late 1980s but near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She and her husband, Mike Pieterse, a businessman who owns gas stations and hotels in South Africa, came here last year on a two-year visa, choosing Myrtle Beach because of the warm weather and the proximity to golf courses. “Mike is a big golfer,” said Zola, who – though quiet and understated – is quick to add, “I’m terrible at golf” and “he hates running.” Still, she sometimes plays with him.
For several hours a week, she coaches running. She is a volunteer assistant coach to the women’s track and cross country team at Coastal Carolina University, just outside Myrtle Beach. As usual, Budd is modest. “I have coached before but never seriously. It’s a new perspective. I think I can see a lot of myself in the other runners.
“It’s much harder to coach than to run. It’s a big responsibility,” she said. “It’s people, not just runners you coach – on and off the track. The most difficult part is to read the individual. A good coach will know how everyone is different, when and when not to push.”
Her colleague Alan Connie, Coastal Carolina’s head coach for women’s track and field and cross country, says Zola is an enormous, unique asset.
“It’s been great for our young athletes – not just for the great publicity but also for the athletes to have an experience of running with Zola on a one-to-one basis,” said Connie. “She’s still pretty much on the shy side, and she relates very well to people on the team. Many have gone to her house and gotten to know her. She gives advice based on her experience and is very encouraging and motivational for the young athletes. They know all about her career.”
For the rest, Zola’s like many moms. “As soon as you have kids, your whole outlook on life changes,” she said. “Your kids are first and foremost. Before I had them, it was most important to run – or at least race well.”
She drives to activities, volunteers for a few hours a week in physical education classes at her son’s school, and encourages her children’s interests. Her oldest, Lisa, is a seventh grader. “She plays the clarinet, flute, and piano and she runs for health and fitness,” said Zola. Her ten-year-old twins are Mikey, a fourth grader, and Azelle, a fifth grader. “Mikey has a lot of ball sense. He loves golf and tennis, and Azelle loves animals and is very artistic.”
“I am not sure which one of them will run,” she said. “As long as they run for health – not competitively, not the way I used to run – that’s fine.”
Zola does not say it, but she seems to have processed her past and grown from it. She seems to be at peace. During a number of years when she had children, from the late nineties to a few years ago, she took a break from competitive running. While focusing on her children, she studied for and finished a master’s degree in pastoral therapy at the University of the Free State in South Africa. “It’s like spiritual therapy…or biblical therapy. It’s based on acknowledging the existence of God. Most psychology doesn’t focus on the influence of God in people’s lives,” she said. On a part-time basis, she counseled students in a high school in South Africa.
She plans to resume her work there when she returns, although she’s not sure exactly when that will be. While the Budd-Pieterse’s visa expires at the end of this year, Budd says they hope to stay.
“I like South Carolina,” she said. “It’s very different from South Africa. I enjoy the people. They’re very friendly and helpful. The kids really enjoy the schools, and not everyone knows who I am. That is nice.”
(as published in National Masters News, 2010, by Cathy Utzschneider)