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Ashleigh Parsons has experienced a hard time, but comes out smiling. Picture: STUART PICKERING
Ashleigh Parsons has experienced a hard time, but comes out smiling. Picture: STUART PICKERING

Aged just 23, Ashleigh Parsons is way too young to remember the 1956 horror movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

But if ever there was a South African who could identify with the title it would be the plucky Boland cyclist.

Six years ago she was riding high, crowned the 2017 junior national road race champion in her hometown of Wellington and with a number of SA track titles under the saddle as well.

And then, in a heartbeat, her life was snatched away from her.

First, the same year she was SA champ, she was diagnosed and hospitalised with cardiac arrhythmia after her heart rate had soared to 260 beats per minute.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic and hard lockdown took away her freedom to ride.

If that wasn’t enough, another episode of arrhythmia saw her undergoing a lengthy ablation procedure during strict lockdown with no visits allowed, and an operation which nearly saw her having to have a pacemaker implanted.

But still her travails weren’t over and just more than three months later she had another huge attack during a family lunch. Moving ahead through another two years of two pedal strokes forward and three back, she finally had a heart-monitoring device implanted just over a year ago.

Besides her heart issues, she had also had a setback while racing in Europe the year after her national road title, where she picked up an Epstein-Barr viral infection that left her unable to race at all in 2019.

Then in December 2022 she suffered a brutal assault while out training as her road bike was snatched from beneath her.

A lesser person would have taken that as a sign and walked away from sport, or even life in general, but Parsons is not normal in that sense of the word.

It’s taken a while for Parsons to tell her tale and only a handful of people close to her will have known all her battles.

“I’ve shied away from telling anything about myself because there’s always this stigma about female athletes in sport ... and a lot of people would just roll their eyes,” she says. 

“Prior to my surgery no-one knew about it and even six months later I never told anyone. But maybe by sharing my story it’ll mean something to someone.

“I mean, I went from being national champion to people asking me if I even still rode a bike. My entire under-23 years were swept out from under my feet and that is something I will never get back again — but you have to grab life by the horns and keep moving forward.”

She says an episode of arrhythmia is nothing less than terrifying, hence the “body snatchers” reference.

“It takes complete control of your body. You get an overwhelming feeling of being unwell, my arms used to go numb, I felt incredibly nauseous and could hear my heart pounding in my ears.”

But she’s moving on now and is encouraged by her progress. “In terms of fitness and strength levels I’m not close to when I was a junior, but I can feel I’m getting there eventually and am pretty close to being able to compete again.”

Well-known coach Ian Rodger was training Parsons during that period of setbacks and even competed against Parsons’ dad Colin back in the day.

“With Ashleigh, there were so many trips to the medical experts, all the accompanying testing and expenses, which also weighs on an athlete emotionally. But here she is, up and riding again and there’s no doubt she’s making progress — which is testament to the sheer strength of her personality.

“If her heart has recovered there’s absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t return to all that she can be.

“I like to think of her as having both the genes and the smarts. Both her parents [Colin and mom Zanne] were high-level competitive riders — she has a supremely strong will and is fearless.”

Parsons refuses to set herself any specific goals for 2023.

“I promised myself I’d just take the pressure off, find my feet and my place in cycling again. This year is just trying to regain my cycling and next year I’m going back to Europe to deal with unfinished business.

“Oh, and of course further down the road are the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.”

Of all her trauma suffered in the past six years Parsons puts the attempted robbery of her road bike as the most severe.

“My hometown is generally so safe, but I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I always ride alone and my mom and brother were out of town that day.

“I was about 3km from home and a guy was walking towards me and as we passed he just launched himself at me and grabbed me around the throat.

“He threw me onto the ground and pushed me off the bike [I was still clipped into the pedals] and I lay there watching him ride away. Thankfully, there was a mechanical issue and he ended up dropping the bike and jumping on to the back of a truck.

“It was the worst experience of my life. For a week I walked around with the guy’s handprint in vivid bruises on my neck and arm. Actually, I hurt my knee so badly it took about five weeks to heal and I couldn’t leave the house for ages, let alone ride again, I was so traumatised.

“But my family [and I have a big family] were brilliant and gave me the time I needed.”

She’s got special mention for big brother Alex. “It sounds cheesy but he really is my rock ... he recently left for France to go and work on yachts. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve spent sitting on the end of his bed, talking about cycling, into the small hours.”

Another thing that keeps her into the small hours, apart from studying marketing management through Unisa, are the two small businesses she runs from home.

“After I had my surgery in 2020 the doctors said I had to find something new to do. I just looked at them — all I knew was cycling!

“It was hard lockdown so I took up sewing, things went from strength to strength and I ended up earning good money from selling handcrafted and individually tailored face masks. Now I can print anything from mugs, to T-shirts, to caps. You name it, I can print it through Crafted Designs.

“Then in a cycling-related venture I’ve also got an online cycling sock gig called AeroStore to help fund my cycling career.”

Just like her brother was a rock, Mom Zanne was a comfort pillow for Parsons.

“All I could do was support Ashleigh emotionally, physically and mentally. It was really hard. She lost so much time.

“But she has a very, very strong sense of what she still wants to achieve. I could easily have encouraged her to move on and leave cycling but I didn’t.

“As her mom, her supporter, her punching bag, her friend, we have pushed on and I would do it over and over again. She is a fighter and will succeed.”

If ever there was a cyclist who could “sock it to ’em” in the face of adversity it’s Parsons snatching her life back from all previous pitfalls.

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