Great strides for SU graduate and Paralympic athlete

Stellenbosch University

Don’t be scared to take on challenges “above” your capabilities if it is something you believe in… yes, it is not going to come easy, but if you commit to it and stay true to yourself, you will have the resilience to persevere through tough times.

With these words Stellenbosch University (SU), graduate Anika Pretorius hopes to inspire others to also achieve their dreams.

The Gauteng native recently received a Master of Science (MSc) in Sports Science (cum laude) during a small graduation ceremony held by the SU Department of Sport Science.

Anika, a visually disabled student and Paralympic athlete, says she “personally had to learn to not be ashamed” of her disability and to not try to hide it.

“I realised that people accept me for who I am and quickly forget that I can’t see well. I don’t have to prove myself. I’ve always embraced a challenge; therefore, one of the reasons I love sport physiology is because it looks at the potential of physiological adaptation to a challenge,” says Anika.

Her Master’s research looked at how participants’ energy metabolism during short, repeated sprints (similar to popular field- and court sports) responded physiologically to the “challenge” of a six-week low-carbohydrate diet.

According to her supervisor, Professor Elmarie Terblanche, being part of Anika’s academic journey was a blessing and a privilege.

“Anika reminded me at a time when I desperately needed it, why I chose a career in academia. She challenged me, as her study leader, on many levels. Together we also learnt and grew as human beings.”

Professor Terblanche says she was astonished by Anika’s perseverance and resilience throughout her studies.

She also admits that she was “very sceptical in the beginning” and could not imagine how Anika would cope with all the equipment and laboratory work.

“It is really astonishing that Anika learned to conduct all the exercise tests in the lab, as it is complicated and a lot of things happen at the same time.

“She also performed all the data analysis herself, which obviously took her much longer compared to anyone else. Anika’s study highlighted a couple of new research hypotheses, which I am very keen to investigate.

“It was not always bliss in the laboratory; however, there were many more episodes of utter joy and laughter and working as a team to get the job done,” says Professor Terblanche.

Despite all the challenges Anika faced, she still managed to balance her studies along with training for the 2021 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

In 2012, she was selected to represent South Africa in the long jump event for visually impaired athletes (T13) at the Paralympic Games in London.

Anika eventually missed the 2016 Rio Paralympics Games due to injury, and hopes for success at the 2021 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Her focus will be on the 100m (T13).

“The Olympics is a dream that I’ve had since childhood – even before I became visually impaired – but came true in a different way than what I ever would have imagined.

“I think the Paralympics is even better than my initial Olympic dream, because it reminds me constantly about the grace of God and it keeps me humble to be surrounded by other amazing athletes who have overcome so much in their lives,” says Anika.

She is currently also involved in the coaching of young Paraathletes, and hopes to continue her research while also teaching and helping others who struggle academically.