Ilse Hayes – Maties Parasport athlete, Paralympic champion and Stellenbosch Sport Ambassador – is in the home stretch of her career and looking back on her life, she wouldn’t change a thing.
She turned 31 on the day local Paralympians boarded a flight to Johannesburg to meet up with the rest of the South African Paralympic team, before they left for Rio, on Wednesday August 31.
This will, in all probability, be her last Paralympic Games. She aims to conclude her international career after the World Championships to be held in the Olympic stadium in London in 2017.
She was 11 when she was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease – a condition that affects the central vision and the ability to distinguish detail – in 1996. The warning bells sounded when Ilse, an outstanding sportswoman and especially tennis player, started missing volley shots at the net because she could no longer follow the ball.
She started taking part in sport for people with disabilities and the rest, as they say, is history.
She competed in her first international athletics meet in 2001 and went from strength to strength. She won five medals at three different Paralympic Games: bronze in the 400m in Athens (2004), and gold in the long jump and silver in the 100m in Beijing (2008), as well as London (2012).
“Parasport has developed a lot over the years,” she says. “It has become a great deal more professional, countries invest more and the public is better informed.”
“The spirit at the Paralympic Games is something special. Everybody there has experienced some form of hardship. Everybody needs somebody for something.”
But the road from one Paralympic Games to the next is not without its challenges.
After the highlight of London 2012, where Ilse defended her long-jump title despite a torn quad muscle, 2013 turned out to be a very difficult year.
She was plagued by injuries – and had to work hard to strengthen her body and her mind. She gave up long jump and decided to focus on her track items – the 100m and the 200m.
She also gave up her job with a community sports project to give herself one last chance to concentrate fully on her sport.
She started 2015 with a new African record in the 200m, and followed this performance with a world record in the 100m in the T13 class. However, in September she had to withdraw from an exhibition race in Rio de Janeiro as well as the African Games due to injury. Her rehabilitation and preparation were focused on the IPC World Championships in Doha in October, where she came back strongly with gold medals in the 100m and 200m.
“The World Champs were a challenge. I won two gold medals but my times weren’t good,” she says. This year, Ilse had to shift her focus from the 200m to the 400m, as there won’t be a 200m event in the T13 class in Rio.
Competing on the highest level is tough.
“You can never rest on your laurels. A new competitor can come from nowhere and surprise you. You can only focus on doing your best.”
Her husband, Cassie Carstens, will be in Brazil to cheer her on, as well as her coach Dr Suzanne Ferreira from Stellenbosch University’s Department of Sport Science and her training partners, fellow Paralympians Arnu Fourie, Fanie van der Merwe, Anruné Liebenberg, Dyan Buis and Charl du Toit.
Ilse describes her support group as a tight-knit family – they contribute to the positive experience of success, but also carry each other through times of injury and hardship.
She has served as an inspiration to many people over the years and has been recognised in various ways: The Order of Ikhamanga: Silver was bestowed on her in 2013, and she was also included in the Mail&Guardian’s list of “200 young South Africans” – a list that recognises influential South Africans younger than 35 years.
“I wouldn’t change my life for anything. God brought these circumstances across my path and it is my responsibility to make the most of my talent and use the opportunities I receive to the fullest. I see it as a platform to be a role model, to inspire people and to give them hope,” she says.
After the World Championships in 2017, Ilse would like to serve as a mentor for other athletes.
She is looking forward to spending more time with her husband, who has made many sacrifices to assist her on her journey.