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Off & Running: Former Olympiad Zola Budd Pieterse still pounds the pavement—but now she’s doing drills alongside Coastal Carolina University track athletes
Sporting enthusiasts may know barefooted runner Zola Budd by her maiden name. Taxis in her native South Africa hometown, Bloemfontein, are nicknamed “Zola Budds” for their steady pace and potential velocity—but these taxis (and she also has a street named for her) are a world away. The former Olympian, and multiple middle-distance (5,000-meter) record-setter, Zola Budd Pieterse, now calls Carolina Forest home. Here on a temporary visa, far removed from her beloved rural, central South African homeland, she’s adjusted to life at the beach, where she enjoys time with her family and shares a lifetime of competitive running experience with the next round of Olympic hopefuls as a volunteer women’s track coach at Coastal Carolina University in Conway.
Soft-spoken, petite, and shy, Pieterse has gladly moved beyond a troubled past, marked by political controversy, a nightmarish experience at the 1984 Summer Olympics, and personal tragedy. Instead, Pieterse, 44, finds peace and fulfillment as a mother of three, wife, part-time volunteer track coach, and, as long as she’s able, a runner who still trains for the next big race.
In the early 1980s, as a teenager who initially wanted only to compete, Pieterse was forced to leave politically charged South Africa, which was then still under apartheid. The nation was banned from all international sporting competitions, and the 17-year-old sought, and was granted, last-minute, expedited citizenship in the United Kingdom, allowing her to compete outside of the boycotts of her native land. Protesters, politicians, and paparazzi followed the young runner, who was making great strides by breaking and setting records as a junior, and she was Great Britain’s best hope for a track-and-field gold medal at the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
The “fall heard around the world” came in the 3,000-meter race at the summer games when Budd, then 18, tangled with favored United States gold-medal hopeful Mary Decker. Budd stumbled, and ultimately finished in seventh place, but Decker was down, her potential medal vanishing amid tears, and booing from the stunned crowd. Initially Decker publicly blamed Budd for the incident (as did the U.S. press), though it was reported that Decker later apologized in a note and in press interviews. Though the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) cleared Budd’s name after reviewing tapes, the damage was done—Olympic dreams dashed in one misstep. The unimaginably disheartening event, for both women, would become one more sad memory for the young South African girl who shunned the spotlight and only wanted to run.
“With the knowledge of hindsight I think it was a mistake [to have left] South Africa,” said Pieterse. We walked the track on the campus of Coastal Carolina University on a recent sunny but cool spring morning. She zipped her tracksuit tightly around her neck. “I was only 17-years-old, and my first big international race was the Olympics.” Her face shows a quiet resolve when she speaks, showing just a bit of hesitation. She has been interviewed, some would say hounded, by the press here and abroad for the past thirty years, and it’s easy to see she’d like to leave her past just where it belongs. Along with a Carolina spring, come birthday parties and science projects for her children, Lisa, 14, and 11-year-old twins, Mike and Azelle, who attend public schools. There’s coaching, track meets, training (she still runs competitively), golfing with her husband, Mike Pieterse, an international tourism consultant, and time to enjoy a much happier adulthood.
Countless analogies to running have followed Pieterse throughout her life: running from the untimely deaths of a sibling and her father, running from the political controversy she was forced to endure as a teenager, and running from the unfounded blame for the Olympic heartbreak. But, for Pieterse, running is now for fun and her troubled past is just that—the past. “It was very difficult for me to move away, when I was so young,” she said. “I miss South Africa and I look forward to getting back.” Her hometown, Bloemfontein, incidentally also the hometown of Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, is high and dry, the perfect place to incubate strong runners. “My family is still there and we still have our farm there.” The Pieterses have been in the Myrtle Beach area for two years and plan to stay another “year or two,” according to Pieterse, which is good news for the Coastal Carolina University women’s track team.
“I got a phone call from Zola a year ago [last] August,” said Alan Connie, who has been head coach of the CCU Women’s Track & Field and Cross-Country for a respectable twenty-four years, the longest-tenured coach at the university. “[Zola] was calling to get connected and looking to run some masters-level races around the country,” said Connie. He and a few fellow coaches and friends met with Pieterse for lunch, and by the end of the week she had agreed to become a volunteer coach.
Though she doesn’t have a defined or structured role, she trains with the women’s and men’s teams as it fits into her schedule and, when she can, travels with the teams to out-of-town meets. “Traveling with the team is like a holiday,” laughed Pieterse. “I don’t have to take care of three kids.”
“[We] value her ability to relate to the athletes and share the wisdom of her experience,” said Connie, “which they appreciate very much.” Pieterse is able to help calm anxious young runners at the meets. “Before the race if they get nervous, I can tell them, ‘Hey that’s normal, we all get nervous.’”
“They have a great respect for what she’s accomplished in her life,” added Connie. “She is one of the most famous track-and-field distance runners that has ever lived.”
Though CCU is fortunate to have her around, she misses South Africa. At least for now, Pieterse is happy to enjoy the good life along the Grand Strand. “Myrtle Beach is great, but I’m still getting used to the weather,” she said, “which is a bit strange to me. I’m not used to running in the humidity, but the people are very friendly. We love the beach, and the waves are not as dangerous as in South Africa. We love animals, so we go to [Ripley’s] Aquarium every so often, and parks like Huntington Beach.”
“For all the world fame that she has, she remains very down to earth and very humble,” said Connie, and Pieterse shares a mutual respect with the coach, appreciating the hard work and long hours required of all coaches. “Coaching is probably the most difficult job in the world,” said Pieterse, “because if the athlete runs well, he’s a good athlete, but if he runs badly, it’s [because of] a bad coach. It’s kind of a thankless job, but if you have a good rapport with your athletes, good communication—that’s important.”
Pieterse trains frequently and still competes, running marathons and other long- and middle-distance races, but getting in a morning run this day will have to wait because her son’s science project is due tomorrow. Though Pieterse understands competitive sport better than most, it no longer drives her. It may never have driven her as much as those who wanted to see the barefooted child athlete bring home the gold. It’s her family that is the center of her attention, not the press, and not the overwhelming pressures that once plagued her life.
“My kids will run for fun, but don’t seem to enjoy competing that much,” she said. “People don’t realize that your whole life is consumed by running once you start down that path.”
Running has been both the source of joy and heartbreak for Pieterse, and it seems that, win or lose, it’s in her South African blood, not easily chased away.
• Favorite world city: Zurich, Switzerland
• Favorite shoe: Newton running shoes
• Role model: “My mom.”
• Proudest personal achievement: “My three kids.”
• Proudest professional achievement: First place at the World Cross Country Championship in Portugal, 1985