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Chapel Address: Her Olympic story – Susan Wessels

Tuesday 26 Jan 2021
This is an image of Susan Wessels playing hockey

Chapel Address: Tuesday 26 January 2021   |  By: Susan Wessels, Senior Deputy Head


At this morning’s Chapel Address, for the whole school to log in and listen to, Senior Deputy Head, Susan Wessels, shared her amazing story of perseverance which made her an Olympic-standard hockey player, representing South Africa in the sport at the Athens and Sydney Games. Here is her remarkable story:

This morning I would like to share with you my personal journey to the Olympics and beyond. I have had some wonderful experiences in my life and today I am very fortunate to be able to use and share these experiences on a daily basis.

The pinnacle of any athlete’s career is to represent their country at an Olympic Games. Besides the effort to excel, participating in the Games is a unique experience, which each athlete perceives in a different way. The games concern everyone participating in them, in whatever way. They have to do with individuals, social groups, cities and countries. They speak of symbols, heroes and myths. Participation means rivalry, effort, exceeding limits and rewards. It means pain and defeat but also new friendships and worthwhile experiences.

The Olympics date back as far as 776 BC and during this time one of the ancient Greek civilisations known as the Spartans were said to be the most successful at the ancient Olympic Games. This was mainly due to the fact that they were strong, fit soldiers that lived a life that was founded on self-discipline, self-sacrifice and hard work. They lived a life that promoted the ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body.

My message this morning is about using the opportunities that you have at school and in life, be it in sport, music, drama or in the classroom to stimulate your mind and gain valuable life experiences that will stand you in good stead in everyday life. Throughout my career, I have used the Spartans ideals of discipline, sacrifice and hard work as my three guiding principles. My experiences prior to, during and after the games have helped me develop a positive mind set and I have learnt how to see life as a series of opportunities. One encounters many obstacles in life, but it is how you deal with these obstacles that define you as a person.

For me the Olympics was about the culmination of years of training, making huge personal sacrifices and being totally committed to the goals that I had set myself. The Olympics is, as it was in ancient times, a battleground, where all the athletes that participate are the best in the world in their chosen sport and just to be a part of that was a huge honour and responsibility.

It was really tough being a top athlete, there were times when many of my friends chose an easier lifestyle going out to parties and having fun, I spent weeks sometimes months away from home and my loved ones, I had to be disciplined in what I ate and how much I slept, I had a rigid training programme to follow while still working. All this hard work was made worthwhile by the unique experiences I had at the Olympic Games and throughout my career.

The Olympic Games is one amazing experience after the other and a few of my personal highlights of the Athens games were: the Opening and Closing ceremonies, living in the athletes village alongside 11,000 world class athletes and possibly the greatest highlight for me was captaining my team to a fantastic 3 -0 victory over Germany, the eventual Gold medallists.

Four years prior to this at the Sydney Olympics I was privileged to meet one of my heroes, in my opinion, one of the greatest people to have lived – Nelson Mandela. For me, meeting Nelson Mandela was an amazing experience and one that I was extremely humbled by.

Mandela had to overcome many, many obstacles in his life including 27 years in prison, but he was the perfect example of a person that had a positive mind set and outlook on life and he saw his challenges in life not as a series of obstacles, but a series of opportunities that have today had an extremely positive impact not only on South Africa but the rest of the world as well.

One attribute that struck me most about Nelson Mandela was his unbelievable enthusiasm and positive attitude to life even though he had spent so many years imprisoned unjustly. He was a boxer in his youth and often referred to his fitness and love for competition as giving him the strength to overcome the challenges that he faced.

Hard work, sacrifice and discipline took on a new meaning for me in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics. I was left out of the National women’s hockey team for the first time in my international career. At that stage I was playing up front as a forward and the coach said that I had been dropped because I didn’t have enough speed and he half-jokingly said that the only way I would be an international hockey player would be as a defender.

This is an image of Senior Deputy Head, Susan Wessels.

I am sure that many of you have also been dropped or left out of a team, the school play or the choir and each of you have dealt with it very differently, some of you might have given up and some of you might have worked harder. But after I spent time reflecting on the decision that had been made, I knew I had it what it takes to be an international hockey player even if I had to change positions and train to be a defender and I decided that nobody was going to ruin my dream of representing my country at the Olympic Games.

It was then that I revisited the reason for my original success, and I kept coming back to a particularly happy period in my life. I was 16 years old, myself and two of my best friends used to train together for hours and hours on end. We used to train on the local astro turf, which was quite far from school, so we each convinced our parents to buy us a moped and every morning before school we used to meet at the local astro turf at 5.30 in the morning and we would train till 7.00 and then head back to school for the day, where we worked hard, participated in school sport and 3 times a week we used to meet in the evening after we had done our prep to train with the local hockey club.

I knew that if I wanted to make it back into the team, this level of commitment and dedication was going to be required again. Doing it with my friends again was a real bonus. I moved away from home to make this happen and with my training group reunited my desire for success was heightened.

We trained together for 10 months and I trained harder than I had ever trained before in pursuit of my dream. At the end of the 10 months at the annual inter-county tournament it was time for the Olympic Team to be announced and I knew deep down that I had done everything that I could have done to make it back into the team. The announcement took place at a gala dinner on the final evening of the tournament. My name was the final name announced. I was going to the Olympics.

The same two friends that started the journey with me were also selected for the team and together we were able to continue our journey. I often look back on that experience as a fantastic learning experience; it was something that defined me as a person I learnt that no matter how much you want something it is not just going to happen, you need to make it happen.

It was my dream from a very young age to go to the Olympics, but for some of you your goal might be to represent your school first team or your county, to pass your grade 5 music exam, get good grades, the level at which you participate is not the most important factor it is the life experiences and lessons you learn along the way that is more important. I believe that all the experiences that I had during my hockey career, have allowed me to develop valuable skills that I use today both in the classroom and on the playing field.

I mentioned the absolute admiration I had for Nelson Mandela who lived his life with such enthusiasm and history has determined that Nelson Mandela achieved great things. So, with sacrifice, discipline, hard work and lots of enthusiasm the ethos of a healthy mind in a healthy body is attainable.

I hope that by sharing my story I have displayed that with discipline and hard work you are able to constantly develop your skills and that together with sacrifice you can be the best that you want to be in whatever you choose.

I would like to leave you with a final thought by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the forefather of the modern Olympics: ‘The important thing in life is not victory but struggle, the essential is not to have won the battle but to have fought well.’

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