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Michelle Staal, centre, having fun with fellow athletes at the SA Masters Championships. Picture: Carel Stander
Michelle Staal, centre, having fun with fellow athletes at the SA Masters Championships. Picture: Carel Stander

At a time when SA suffers endless load-shedding, it’s apt to describe multitalented athlete Michelle Staal as a sporting version of the Duracell bunny.                           

Bloemfontein-born and bred, she met husband Henri in Kroonstad where she was doing her medical internship.

Now living in Johannesburg, the 50-year-old has a multisporting archetype. Incredibly, she has provincial colours in no fewer than 10 sporting activities. Listed alphabetically these are: biathle, biathlon, chess, duathlon, long-distance and Olympic distance triathlon, cross (off-road) triathlon, squash and underwater hockey.

What’s more, she recently qualified for provincial colours in the long jump, high jump, 80 and 300m hurdles, 200, 400 and 800m events.

Added to this she has Springbok colours in lifesaving, triathlon (Olympic distance, long distance, cross), duathlon, biathle and biathlon.

She’s also raised two children, now both studying at Stellenbosch University, and runs a thriving medical practice under her maiden name of Weyers in Gauteng.

With her husband a successful businessman, Staal was literally living the good life. As she says: “It’s always been a case of ‘go, go, go’ with me.”

But six years ago that all changed overnight — quite simply, the “bunny’s” batteries went flat.

“I was training for Half Ironman, raising kids, moving house, socialising and working hard, not sleeping ... and I picked up the coxsackie B virus while my immune system was low.

“And that was me, I crashed, burnt out. I literally couldn’t get out of bed during the day, didn’t even have the strength to comb my hair. It was really a case of going from hero to zero.”

It took 18 months for her to recharge, with the heart condition myocarditis just one of the side-effects of the virus. “I thought I’d never walk again, let alone run,” she reflects.

Her first passion has always been longer distance multisports like triathlon while respecting the versatility needed for top heptathlon and decathlon athletes.

Suddenly she was in the midst of experiencing “this little midlife crisis”.

“But instead of bad men and alcohol, I fell in love with track and field athletics and more specifically masters athletics and started celebrating life and health again.

“It’s just so inspirational ... seeing older people compete with such passion.

“I met a lady who had never done athletics, but when her husband passed away when she was aged 65, she started athletics.”

Which brings us to the recently completed SA Masters Athletics Championships in Cape Town where Staal once again excelled.

She ended the championships with five gold and one silver medal and a new national heptathlon record. Those gold medals came in the 80 and 300m hurdles, 400m and long jump — and of course the heptathlon.

“Masters athletics really rocks ... I was so impressed to see a 97-year-old former athlete climbing the steps all the way up the pavilion just to support her fellow athletes.”

The permanently smiling blonde has used her own life experience to change the way she approaches her medical career. “I’ve changed from being a pill-pusher doctor, just ‘applying plasters’, and now take a far more integrated medical approach and look at root causes and how you can prevent and cure illnesses by changing your whole lifestyle [and if needed, the correct supplements].

“It’s the choices that you can make today that will help you 20 years down the road. And the problem is, there are just so many people with fatigue out there these days, not only post Covid-19 infections, but the stress of our current life in SA. Yet so few doctors know how to treat it optimally and are too quick to just prescribe antidepressant medication instead of taking a holistic approach.

“It’s just not right. I’ve been through that and know there is hope out there for fatigued patients. People must self-educate and search for answers until they find someone knowledgeable and passionate who believes their symptoms are real [not hypochondria] and can help them get better.

“With things like fatigue the problem is that doctors are so busy these days they simply don’t have the time to spend digging in these multilayered cases [and the patients wanted to be better yesterday.]

“Thankfully I’m in the fortunate position of having my husband as the primary breadwinner, which enables me to work in my field of passion.”

For Staal, her antidepressant of choice is exercise. “Most people would never believe it, but I’m actually a bit of an introvert and when I’m training, that is my time. It’s purely my time and that’s when my head really sorts itself out.

“After exercise I feel like a million dollars ... I honestly swear it’s like a drug to me. It gives me such a huge kick.”

Husband Henri is well aware of his wife’s metabolism. “He’s amazingly supportive, gives me space, and truly knows how to manage my energy ... he’s one of so many great people in my life.”

Now that her kids have left the nest the senior Staals are making hay while the sun shines and doing a lot of travelling. “We were actually overseas a month before SA Masters.”

But, of course, she’s hoping to combine travelling with competition. “The world biathle championships are in Bali in November and I wouldn’t mind having a crack at that,” she muses.

She also loves squash, but it seems that will have been pushed aside (for now) due to a knee injury. She’s also flirting with taking up rowing as “it’s always been something I wanted to try”.

And then of course there’s unfinished business with the heptathlon which, amazingly, she only took up a year ago.

“I really want to take advantage while I’m in the bottom range of my age group, and again, I can’t emphasise enough how much fun Masters athletics is. Everyone’s a winner, there are no losers, and even your own competitors are often the first to help with something.”

One thing’s for sure, her clash with coxsackie has brought her down a notch or two — and she freely admits it.

“I used to be incredibly independent but when you can’t even unpack your own clothes from moving boxes, you eat such humble pie. And one has to realise that people actually like helping others, and we need to understand that and give them the opportunity in our times of need.

“Never be afraid to ask ... and that applies to both sport and life in general. Live life to the full while you have health and mobility ... it’s such a privilege!

“Also, things are so negative in SA right now we need to create our own bubbles of happiness as in a close circle of friends, exercise, time outdoors and in nature because at the end of the day nothing is guaranteed.”

Except of course that in the shape of the multitalented Staal, masters athletics and the broader SA sporting family has a breath of fresh air from all the flatness of fatigue.


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