It’s sevens up and away for former Olympic sprinter turned rugby player

By Yanga Sibembe 11 September 2019

Alyssa Conley swapped her spikes for rugby boots. Photo: Loyiso Mantaga Photography

Before 25 March 2019, Olympic sprinter Alyssa Conley had never touched a rugby ball. Then she was approached to join the Springbok Women’s Sevens team, a challenge she accepted. Now the 28-year-old has her sights set on going to the Olympics for a second time.

The announcement this year that South African Olympian and sprinter Alyssa Conley would be ditching the track for the rugby field shocked many who had followed her 21-year sprinting career – especially her family.

Conley says even though Springbok Sevens coach Paul Delport approached her in August 2018, after a race, she only made the decision in March this year after finishing a race and realising it had given her no pleasure.

Alyssa Conley wins the women’s 200m during day 2 of the ASA Senior Championships at PUK McArthur Stadium on April 22, 2017 in Potchefstroom, South Africa. (Photo by Roger Sedres/Gallo Images)

It was actually at a provincial race where I just didn’t get that feeling when I was on the track anymore. I told my parents: ‘I think this is my last race.’ And my mom was like: ‘What? You’re crazy. It can’t be your last race. Just try and go to SAs [SA Championships].”

But she was adamant she wouldn’t continue doing something that was no longer fulfilling and decided to make the switch.

Despite their initial misgivings, her family were fully supportive of her decision. This included her sister, Simone Conley, who is a biokineticist and football fitness trainer.

She understands sports, and she understands the body, especially my body after working with me and helping me get back to the track after an operation and then making the Olympics. She knew that this is what I needed, you know, that I needed that switch. And she supports me 100% in everything I want to do,” said Conley of her sister’s support.

The 28-year-old said she had never touched a rugby ball until Delport approached her, saying if she was interested, the Springbok Sevens women’s team was looking for someone with a lot of speed.

I thought he was absolutely insane. Because I’ve never played a team sport in my life. I’ve always just done an individual sport, sprinting. I had never touched a rugby ball in my life. And so, for me it was absolutely crazy. I didn’t see how that was going to work.”

Eventually, she decided to seize the opportunity to carve a new path in her sporting career. Because of her lack of experience in the sport and the fact that the national team only meets once every six weeks for training, in Stellenbosch, while she is based in Johannesburg, Conley needed something that would help her speed up the process and continue training, even on her own. Enter ShadowBall.

Alyssa Conley swapped her spikes for rugby boots. Photo: Loyiso Mantaga Photography

After hearing about ShadowBall from a good friend, Selom Gavor who played for the Xerox Golden Lions, Conley went on the ShadowBall Pass Booster programme to upskill her passing and catching abilities in her newly adopted sport.

The ShadowBall is half a rugby ball that rebounds off any wall and enables solo training. The programme was developed by Gary Crookes, alongside Stellenbosch University. Crookes said they worked with Jeppe High School for Boys, a sports science doctor from New Zealand and former Springbok and sevens player Gcobani Bobo. Tests showed that the Jeppe Boys had improved their pass rate by up to 266% after four weeks on the programme.

Conley said the programme had helped but she still has work to do.

I definitely improved and I’ve heard stories where other sprinters have tried this and in a year they still couldn’t pass or catch the ball correctly. So, I think for me getting the basics right; just my passing, my catching, my movement and understanding the game, that’s a big thing. I’m very proud of myself,” Conley told Daily Maverick.

Bobo, who is the director of coaching at ShadowBall, praised Conley’s ability and work ethic. He was impressed with her transition to sevens rugby:

I think what it shows is that she’s a talented individual who’s worked for 20 years in sports. And knowing that she can transition because of her core values of what she has done as an athlete. That’s a much easier transition for any coach, to have someone in the team environment who’s got such high work [rate] and an appetite.”

Conley, who is yet to play in a formal match, and the rest of her sevens teammates now have their sights firmly set on Olympic qualification, something they will be attempting in October at the Africa Cup in Tunisia. They will have to go all the way and win the cup if they want to secure their ticket to Tokyo in 2020. DM


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