Thursday, 17 November 2016 18:30

Making warriors out of young men

Written by 
Merchants Change a Life running team

It is often said that sport has the capability to bring together a nation and change lives. The Change a Life Academy was started in 2008 when Martin Dreyer won his seventh Dusi Canoe Marathon alongside Thulani Mbanjwa. After four intense and vigorous months of training together, Mbanjwa became the first black person to ever win the race.

“Thulani lived in a very rural setting in the Valley of a Thousand Hills and did not have much of a support structure at the time,” says Dreyer. “His friends used to run barefoot with us when we trained twice a day.”

The following year my Change a Life Academy was started. “My goal was to try get ten of Thulani’s friends into the top 50 at the Dusi. I again, rigorously trained for four months down in the Valley of 1000 Hills, but this time I was able to provide them with a blueprint on how to win as well as additional support through supplements, clothing, and equipment.” Amazingly, all ten of the CAL paddlers finished in the top 356 out of 1 500 paddlers.

Three years ago, Dreyer started a mountain bike team and, earlier this year, he created a running team, which has subsequently been sponsored by Merchants. Merchants provides the team with everything they need to be successful, and has also sponsored a vehicle so that the team can travel to their required destinations.

Dreyer wanted to challenge the Merchants CAL running team and opted to focus on the gnarly Jeep Warrior Races, a series of eight obstacle course trail running races across the country. “Straight runs are too easy and we needed to up the ante in difficulty, to make it a proper challenge. It’s a tough goal for an athlete to complete the Black Ops Elite category, which is a 15-kilometre trail run race with 30 obstacles,” says Dreyer. He adds that the race organisers initially advised him to enter the athletes in the Commando division. “They said it normally takes a regular athlete a year before they are able to complete a Black Ops Elite race.

When none of the athletes completed the first two Black Ops Elite Warrior Races held in Krugersdorp and Ballito, Dreyer started questioning whether he had set the bar too high for the athletes. I organised with “Claude Eksteen, a seasoned OCR athlete and 2015 series winner, for my runners to train at his Obstacle Course Training facility once a week. With advice from an expert, their technique improved tremendously, along with their strength. As a result, three of my athletes finished the next Black Ops Elite Warrior Race in Pretoria in an incredible 9th, 10th, and 15th position overall.”

The athletes have since gained tremendous confidence and at the Warrior race at Meerendal Wine Estate in Cape Town, two of them amazingly cracked a top five overall, 4th and 5th and also 12th place.  “There is so much raw talent in the Valley of 1000 Hills. It just goes to show what providing a support structure, hard training and mentorship can achieve,” says Dreyer.

Kwanda Mhlophe, who came 4th at that Warrior Race in Cape Town, has been selected as the team captain. “My secret is to push my limits and test my mental power. I enjoy the unique obstacles, which are out of my comfort zone, and test my physical and mental capabilities. I'd recommend this event to others because it tests every person’s capabilities and boosts one’s self-esteem when you overcome an obstacle.” The Change a Life Academy supported Mhlophe in his sports management diploma, which he completed last year at Varsity College, to prepare him to take on a stronger leadership role within the Academy.

Hlelani Radebe came 5th in the same race. “I've grown to love this sport and it helps me persevere. I enjoy the challenge of the obstacles I come across. I would recommend it to other rural people because it is still new from where we come from and it’s not a typical choice of sport in the Valley of a Thousand Hills.”

Dreyer says it’s not always about winning, but rather participation for everyone. “There is so much discipline and hard work involved in this sport and it has really taught the athletes amazing life skills. They train twice a day and they are beginning to realise that what you put in, is what you get out.” He adds that the athletes receive food parcels to take home to their families, which gives them a sense of purpose and enables them to provide for their families. “This, in turn, gets the families to support that athlete to train and ensure they are eating healthy to maintain their training regime and races.”

“Merchants coming into the academy and supporting the running team has just given it wings. Now there is a team that travels around the country doing this national Warrior series,” says Dreyer. A group of 133 Merchants employees also participated in the Rookie division of the Cape Town Warrior Race. “It was humbling to see how the Merchants teams worked together, stuck it out and got to the finish line. It’s awesome that the company is providing this platform for its employees to be more active and participate in these races. It’s also great that they are aligning themselves through not only sponsoring the team but participating in the race as well,” he says.

“People and customers first is a message that you hear quite often, yet it’s a principle by which we live within Merchants. Our aim is to create meaningful and sustainable futures for our people and the communities that we serve. Our people have embraced the Change a Life Academy sponsorship, by actively participating in these races and improving their lifestyles,” says Jennifer Algie, People Director at Merchants. 187 Merchants employees will be taking part in the upcoming National series final Warrior Race taking place in Pretoria on the 19th of November.

Published in Sports Range

Lizelle McDermott is the owner of marketing communications agency McD Squared. She has over 13 years' experience in public relations, strategic marketing and social media communications, specialising in IT and telecommunications. 

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