Sport

ENDURANCE CHAMP

At 61, the iron woman of SA triathlons is still a colossus

At 61, the iron woman of SA triathlons is still a colossus
Viv Williams (right) runs alongside her twin sister, Renee (also an accomplished athlete) at the African 3 day stage endurance race in Houw Hoek valley, Overberg in the Western Cape in 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

Vivienne Williams swept the board in her age group in all the Half Ironman events held last year. She’s an inspiration to the top endurance athletes she pushes to ever-higher goals as a coach

“Success in any sport, as in life, is no accident. It is the result of hard work, perseverance, sacrifice and, most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”

Those were the words of Pele, the late Brazilian and global football star. Many top achievers in sport align with that statement, and commit themselves to the gruelling all-out sacrifice demanded to achieve at the highest level.

Vivienne Williams of Cape Town is just such an exceptional achiever. After more than four decades of extraordinary success as a triathlete and coach, she is still at the top.

With her petite build and trademark blond ponytail, the 61-year-old nailed 2022 by winning, in her 60-65 age group, all three of the Half Ironman races held for the first time in one calendar year in South Africa.

The Half Iron is considered a brutal monster of a challenge for only the bravest of the brave. It is just more than double the distance of an Olympic-distance triathlon (which is an endurance monster itself).

You have to endure the pain of three individual sports – a gruelling 1,900m open water swim, a 90km cycle race, and a 21.1km run to end it all off. It demands an exhausting combination of speed, endurance and skill.

Williams crossed the winning line first at the Half Ironman in Gqeberha in April, in Durban in October, and a mere five weeks later in Mossel Bay in November. It was unprecedented.

Viv Williams was the winner in all three 70.3 half-ironman triathlon competitions held in South Africa in 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

She is a top triathlete, road and trail runner and open-water swimmer. She is a double world age-group triathlon champion (2007 and 2012) and silver medallist at the World 70.3 championships in Canada (September 2014) and represented South Africa as an elite triathlete from 1995 to 1999.

She continues to dominate as an athlete in her age group. She is an accredited international triathlon coach and has coached individuals and teams to excellent national and international performances. She has managed teams at world championship and Olympic level.

“I have entered another three Half Ironman races in 2023, one of which will be international. I would hate to call it an addiction,” she says with a smile.

“I would rather say I am committed to trying to be the best person and athlete I can possibly be, so I challenge myself. Even when you win a race, there is always the matter of your personal experience of whether you thought you did the best you could have. A sense that you could do even better. It’s an elusive goal one keeps chasing.

“I have around 15 training sessions a week, which includes ‘mobility and strength’ sessions, four swim sets, four to five runs and about five cycle sessions, which are mostly indoors on my trainer.”

Total commitment

As a young mother of two children, Williams competed internationally and attempted to qualify for the Olympics in 2000. Now, even at retirement age, she continues to excel, specialising in the Half Ironman.

“I was working as a diagnostic radiographer and ultrasound specialist at the time, raising my two small kids, training like mad, and competing internationally when I could,” Williams said.

“It was a gruelling path. I am a person who loves deeply and hence commits absolutely. I wanted it all, but international travel two decades ago was hard.

“With triathlon becoming an Olympic sport in 2000, Triathlon South Africa selected two female and two male athletes to travel and race in an attempt to earn points and gain start slots.

“We travelled abroad for five weeks with no management or coaching support. It was tough. This trip included a training camp in Perth, Australia, with a final race at the beautiful Sydney harbour,” she says.

“I recall standing on the start pontoon, literally with tears in my swimming goggles. I was so homesick and missed the family so much. It was now time to head home.”

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Williams landed the job of head of sports at Rustenburg Girls’ High School in Rondebosch in Cape Town a while later and remained in that position for more than 10 years.

She was well suited to the job because, as a learner, she herself excelled in all sports at school and achieved provincial colours in many of them. She credits her ability and endurance to her active lifestyle while growing up. She kept competing and won many races and triathlon competitions over the years.

She left the school job in 2015 to concentrate full-time on triathlon coaching and to develop her own SCR Academy, which coaches athletes in swimming, cycling and running.

It’s another gold for triathlon athlete Viv Williams (middle) as she beats the rest of the athletes in her age group at the 2012 world triathlon championships in Spain in the World Championships Long distance race. Left, Merce Magern Prat of Spain was second and Debra Kempe of Australia third. (Photo: Supplied)

Creative process

In 2014, Williams was invited by the International Triathlon Union (now World Triathlon) to complete a coaching facilitator course, which enables her to facilitate coaching courses internationally.

“I love coaching and helping individual athletes to reach their goals. From teaching a young learner to swim and seeing how that changes them, to coaching an elite triathlete to compete at international races – it is all most rewarding,” she says.

“We set their individual programme together. We set targets to challenge the athlete to an improved performance. [There are] three weeks of building and a fourth week with a lower intensity of training.

“Then you adjust the level upward and repeat the cycle over four months.

“This way you can train hard without breaking down. Elite athletes can train up to 36 hours a week, fine-tuning and assessing continuously.

“We use data-driven technology to track performance over time. But we constantly monitor how the individual athlete is experiencing their own body and performance. We are humans, after all, not machines.

“I have experience in fine-tuning and understanding my body and I try to transfer those skills to the athletes. It is a creative process of building for increased performance, with twists and turns along the way. Everything we do is, by necessity, unique to the individual.”

As one athlete training with Williams said: “Her veins are filled with love and iron. It is a lethal combination that is the base for her excellence in sport and in life. What an amazing determination over decades in arguably the toughest of sports.”

At 61, it seems there is little that’s not possible for Williams, who ran her first 5km race with her boyfriend in their teens and, by all accounts, complained all the way to the finish line.

Now married for 38 years to that boyfriend, Pete, she says he grounds her and she is amazed that he has “stayed that long as I am hard to live with”.

Williams has some odd habits (as do most competitive athletes). She tries never to brush up against a tree or pass under a signpost. The laces of her running shoes at home must all be “tucked in” and she hates entering a shop and leaving through a different door.

“I don’t understand these things but I  do them,” she says with a smile.

“I want to do triathlon until I can’t any more.” Because of a negligent intervention by a paramedical practitioner, she suffered a right-side sciatic nerve injury and underwent back surgery in 2018.

She says: “While I know that I am not the athlete I used to be, I am amazed and grateful for what I am still able to do. I view my body and the talent I was given as a precious gift and I want to honour that always. I feel great satisfaction now from witnessing fantastic performances from the athletes [whom] I coach.” DM168

Anso Thom is Maverick Citizen Managing Editor.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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