When news filtered through recently that sprinter Alyssa Conley had hung up her spikes in exchange for a pair of borrowed rugby boots, those who heard it would have been forgiven for thinking it an April Fools’ Day joke.
The fact that SA Rugby’s announcement of the 2016 100m and 200m Olympians’ recruitment for the national women’s sevens team was actually made on April 1 did little to quell the incredulity. The thinking among many was: Why would Conley give up athletics at an age who most sprinters are coming into their prime?
For starters, the 27-year-old had not touched a rugby ball before undergoing tests with the sevens team just over a fortnight ago, so there were many knowing winks and nods at the announcement.
Conley explained that the suddenness and implausible nature of her change weren’t the only reasons for the April 1 announcement: “I had to put a hold on them posting the video. I’m a Nike athlete and I was wearing an Asics jacket in the video, so I had a few people to notify. When it was posted, a lot of people said: ‘Haha! Nice April Fools’ joke.’ When I posted it again, everybody thought it was an interesting transition.
“The strange thing is, I’ve been in athletics for 21 years, probably been the fastest woman in Gauteng for over 17 years, won a few national titles and I’m an Olympian, but it’s the first time I’ve had so much media and publicity around me.”
Conley’s defection happened when out-of-the-box thinking met opportunity. After the World Cup Sevens last year, national women’s sevens team coach Paul Delport and his conditioning coach Tim Qumbu decided there was not enough speed in their team or in the rugby systems. So they decided to go on a recruitment drive, which has seen them approach athletes, rowers and touch rugby players, including Conley.
“Paul and Tim invited me to a meeting after the World Cup last year where they asked me to try out for their team. I thought they were absolutely crazy because I’d never played rugby before,” she said.
“I told them it was only something I’d do towards the end of my career, if I did it at all. But, this year, I’ve felt lacking in something with my running. I felt like I’d hit a plateau, and didn’t have energy or motivation. I got a call from Tim again and that’s when I thought maybe I should give it a try.”
With sprinting experiencing something of an explosion in popularity, Conley surprisingly said disillusion played a role in her decision.
“It looks like there’s an explosion within sprinting, but I don’t believe it’s true. For certain individuals, it is, but the rest of us are still trying to hustle. There’s not a lot of support in terms of finances. I got tired of having to figure out how to make things happen on my own.”
Due to her interest having only stretched to watching rugby on TV, Conley finds herself with a lengthy to-do list in her efforts to get herself ready to make the team in time for the July African qualifiers for the 2020 Olympics. Said list includes learning the laws from a playing perspective, learning to change direction while running, tackling, taking hits herself, catching and passing, and improving her currently inadequate Yo-Yo Endurance Test level scores, given her recent sprinting past.
To address all that, she is doing a sevens training programme with her sister Simone, the conditioning coach at PSL side Highlands Park, and getting help from former Springbok Gcobani Bobo and former Lions player Selom Gavor.
“The to-do list is extremely long; it’s overwhelming and scary, but exciting.”
The early signs have been promising for Conley, whose personal best times in the 100m and the 200m of 11.23s and 22.84s, respectively, saw her set a best 40m test time of 5.22s in borrowed boots a size too big.
Now for taking real contact, which is no joke.