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Elzy Wellings: Athlete and Activist

It is no easy life being an elite 10,000m runner. One is under-paid and under-appreciated at least by the standards of global sports. A track runner can be anonymous for as good as four years, yet, on the Olympic stage, the athlete can become a star, on the minor proviso that she or he, wins a medal. 

But of course, running is not being a star. A recent quote from Australia’s best known athlete, Sally Pearson, also rings true in the case of Elzy Wellings: “just because I’m injured, it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop. This is who I am, this is what I do.”  Wellings’ career has been long and enduring: some 16 plus years of producing Olympic qualifying times. Her career, however, has also been hampered by injuries. Such is a runner’s lot. Wellings life and career as a runner has taken her to Uganda: where she has founded the Love Mercy Foundation which among other things, helps empower women farmers. On a mild Leiden evening and after winning the 10,000m in the Gouden Spike, Elzy shared some of her story.

This is a surprise for me to meet you. I’m a little under-prepared! Congratulations on winning here. Another Olympics – you must be happy.

I qualified for the Sydney Olympics at the age of 16 for the 5km. But, I couldn’t compete because I got injured. The same thing happened for the Athens Olympics and then also again for the Beijing Olympics. Finally, in 2012, I competed in the London Olympics in the 10,000. Unfortunately, I think I under-performed. I was really emotional in the lead-up to the Games and then also during the actual moment. At the same time, I wouldn’t take any of those injuries back, so to speak. Each one of them has taught me something new about my body and about how to train more effectively. I feel that I have become a much stronger runner because of all of those injuries. The disappointments are hard to take at the time, but, I feel they’ve made me the runner who I am today.

It’s great your partner and daughter are here. Are they able to travel much with you?

My husband and daughter will be coming to Rio with me. My parents and my parents-in-law too. I am fortunate for them to be able to come. My husband has a career as a photographer. His work is quite flexible, so, that allows for all of us to travel together. I have been based in London over the last couple of months. During this time, I’ve been doing some intense training and also competing in events like this one, the Gouden Spike, and also others in the UK. Before going to Rio, I’ll also spend time in the States training at altitude.

Elzy Wellings - Gouden Spike

Elzy vs. 10,000m in Leiden (photo by Erik van Leeuwen)

What are the hours you put in as an athlete? How do you balance training with other aspects of your life?

I don’t actually know how many hours per week I am training. One doesn’t become a long-distance runner in order to get rich. One of the misconceptions about being an Olympian is that people think, the moment you qualify for the Olympics you get rich. It took my husband and I a while to pay off the costs that it took for me to take part in the London Olympics. The training, flights, accommodation etc, was a large financial investment on our behalf.

Elzy qualifies for the Rio Olympics, in Melbourne (2015)

I run 140km per week. I train twice a day: normally at 9:30 and 5:30. And then, in between I’ll look after my three year old daughter. Apart from running, I also have to do a lot of injury prevention work, cross-training, conditioning and strength-work in the gym. Even if I don’t have time for a nap in the middle of the day, I’ll at least make sure that I put my feet up, close my eyes and get some proper rest for an hour or so. This is important to stay focused, relaxed and also prepared for the evening session.

Australian sport is heavily favored to men’s sports – even if things are slowly changing – what’s it like being a female athlete in the Olympics?

Athletics does really well during the Olympics. And the women’s events also get a fair amount of attention during the Olympics. But the problem is that we only get this degree of attention once every four years. Even the World Championships, which are of the same level, don’t get anywhere near as much attention. So, basically, as a female athlete, we get very little exposure. The men’s football codes, rugby, footy, soccer, get so much more attention. As a result, it is important for female athletes always to do very well and to bring an element of charisma to our events and to create a good impression.

What helps you maintain your motivation – what is unique about running?

I get a big thrill out of taking part in fun-runs and other community running events. This is one of the great things about our sport. There is no way an amateur rugby player could line up in the same events as elite rugby players, but, in long-distance runners, we can all compete in the same event. And, I get a lot of inspiration from amateur runners and people who have just taken up running. For example, it is very difficult to go from couch-potato to competing in a half-marathon. That is a really big jump.

It’s difficult these days to talk about major sporting competitions, without somehow mentioning doping. What’s your take, as a professional athlete?

I don’t think too much about whether or not other athletes are doping. The most important thing for me is to concentrate on my own performance. One can’t afford to worry about matters beyond one’s control. One has to trust in the authorities. There was one case, however, where I did turn down an invitation to race in an event. There was an athlete who had been found guilty of doping and was suspended only for six months, when in fact, she should have been suspended for four years. The punishment wasn’t applied retrospectively, and so she was free to compete in the race that I had been invited for. But, that is the only time I have actively turned down an event because of my stance on doping. To be honest – I feel really sorry for athletes who dope. They must have such a burden on their conscience. The brief fame and fortune that they may earn through cheating doesn’t compensate for the shame they will endure after being found out.

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Elzy wins the 10,000m in Leiden’s Gouden Spike (photo by Erik van Leeuwen)

Many professional footballers find it difficult to transition from their career as players to having ‘normal’ jobs. What is the situation like for athletes?

I’ll answer it this way: my work is through my Foundation. I started Love Mercy Foundation after becoming friends with Julius Achon – a former child-soldier and Olympic athlete. Through my friendship with him we started the foundation in order to help rebuild communities that had been badly affected by the civil war in Uganda. Love Mercy helps empower women in Northern Uganda and aiding them in creating some stable financial and farming infrastructure.

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