Mention the words barefoot Olympian athlete and Mary Slaney (née Decker) and you would be talking about non other than Zola Budd Pieterse – synonymous with not only breaking various world records, but also with SA’s fast-moving minibus taxis. “There goes a Zola Budd,” was a phrase often heard in SA, becoming so popular that SA’s late ‘queen of pop’, Brenda Fassie, even wrote a song about it. “I’m still very proud of ‘Zola Budds’. It just showed that despite the political situation in SA, people still appreciated my running ability. It didn’t matter what my skin colour was,” says Zola, who moved back home to SA from the US in 2021. Now settled in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape, with her husband Mike, the 57-year-old spends her days coaching full-time at Stellenbosch High School with Elana Meyer, who won a silver medal in the 10 000m at the 1992 Summer Olympics.
Zola was also recently appointed as the ambassador for Stadio Higher Education’s athletics and running club, which was launched earlier this year. “There’s no sport without education, which is important for South Africans hoping to become professional athletes. Stadio’s club emphasises the importance of education alongside running,” says Zola.
Setting world records
Born in 1966 in Bloemfontein in the Free State, Zola was just 17 years old when she broke the women’s 5 000m world record in 1984, gaining international recognition. However, as SA was banned from international sporting events due to apartheid, the record wasn’t ratified. Not one to be held back, she claimed the world record officially in 1985, while representing Great Britain. Zola came seventh in the 1984 Olympic 3 000m final in Los Angeles, renowned for the collision between her and Mary. Zola was later absolved of wrongdoing by race officials.
The same year, she broke the 2 000m world record. She went on to win the World Cross Country Championships in 1985 and 1986, and also set world records in the 5 000m and indoor 3 000m. In 1991, in SA, she ran the second fastest time in the world in the 3 000m. She then competed for SA at the 1992 Olympic Games, but didn’t ualify for the final. In 1993, she finished fourth at the World Cross Country Championships. Despite her world records and other significant achievements, Zola cites her run in the 2014 Comrades Marathon, which earned her a gold medal and a place in the top-10 women’s race, as one of the highlights of her career.
“It was totally unexpected and a huge achievement for me on a personal level. It’s one of the toughest races and will always stand out for me. I had wanted to run it since I was a child, but never had the courage because it was such a commitment. I trained on my own and my daughter, Lisa, helped me a lot and kept me motivated.”
She ran her first Comrades Marathon in 2012, crossing the finishing line with South African marathon and ultramarathon athlete Bruce Fordyce, who had mentored Zola in preparation for her race.
Moving to the US
Zola and her family moved to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina in 2008, so she could compete on the masters running circuit. “It was only going to be for two years, but our children [Lisa (now 27) and twins Michael and Azelle (25)] were settled,” says Zola.
“We decided it was time to come back home in 2021 when my son finished his undergraduate studies.”
Zola is thankful for the opportunities she and her family had in America, especially education. “But we lived in SA for such a long time that we yearned for home. When you’re born with an African soul, it’s difficult to adapt to other continents.” During her time in Myrtle Beach, she worked as a volunteer coach at Coastal Carolina University for over 10 years, before becoming the official coach. Her happy place ‘is probably in the Free State, in the open Karoo’. “I love the southern part of the Free State, but don’t get there enough,” says Zola.
She doesn’t describe herself as an athlete or runner. “I don’t how to describe myself… But I love to be outdoors; that’s the most important thing to me.” While she doesn’t have much time now to compete in races and cross country, her coaching keeps her busy. She urges aspiring athletes to take it day by day and be patient.
“You never know when it’s going to happen, just wait for it.” In May, Zola obtained her PhD in education at Coastal Carolina University. “I finally realised my dream… My son Michael did the hooding ceremony,” she says. As for the future, Zola says one word springs to mind – ‘survival’. “I’m almost 60… Every day is a gift and I am thankful to still be here. My philosophy is not what you can get out of life, but what meaning you can add to it.”
This was Viktor Frankl’s theory. An Austrian psychologist, Frankl believed people are motivated by the need to find meaning in life. “He is my role model,” says Zola. “We also need to be thankful for every opportunity and grow from it.”