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10 May 2021 | in FISU Athletes

Finding purpose through sport for South Africa's Rachel Leistra

University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Rachel LeistraUniversity of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Rachel Leistra is motivated to get back to competing again after working through a hamstring tendinopathy injury for the past year.


Leistra, who has also been an avid runner from the age of seven, ran with an injury on her way to a bronze medal in the half marathon for South Africa at the Napoli 2019 Summer Universiade. “In the end, winning a team bronze medal was awesome and I was extremely happy. Even though I could not perform how I would have liked, I was so happy to have finished with the team prize, making the team and the coaches proud. To win as a team against the best of the best from around the world was a special feeling and I received great support from my teammates,” she recollected.


After the success of the FISU Games and on her arrival back home, Leistra suffered another serious injury setback which required her to make a big decision on whether or not to have surgery. She decided against the surgery and opted to pay a visit to physio Parys Edwards, who was patient and encouraged her to keep on trying after a number of diagnoses from different doctors. A running analysis was conducted by Edwards after various tests and on final inspection the decision was taken that her running technique needed to be changed.


“That has been my aim for the past few months – to correct my running technique and focus on foot strength and strength overall. At the moment, this has helped me tremendously and I am currently training with coach Dumi at UJ. It will be a slow process again, literally starting from the bottom. Though I am so excited to do what I love again and race and I feel that with the support my coach has already shown me, it just makes me believe in myself even more,” she said with enthusiasm.


Her love affair with running began when she competed in ‘Fun Runs’ in primary school and it did not end there. Many years later, she surprised herself and came 5th in a cross-country race beating the fastest girl in her high school. That is when she was sold on her capability to be a competitive runner and pushed herself to reach her fullest potential.


“The more I ran the more I loved it, although one thing I did lack was a good coach to guide me and help me do races outside of school to get better and faster. Once I started at UJ, I joined a new running group and the amazing coach who helped me was JP,” she explained.


“I learnt so much in the first year running at UJ and having the support was super great. I did get better and better as the years went on and just fell in love with running. Unfortunately, there were set backs because of injuries. I did push through, although being injured and racing is not the same as being 100% healthy and giving your all in training, as well as in the races,” she added.


The 24-year-old has been given many life-lessons in her running career so far with her motivation to compete again reaching new heights. “I think over the years I have just learnt more and more about myself and my running. Each race has taught me something, each person I have met during my running journey has taught me something and each injury has also taught me something,” Leistra mentioned.


“I wouldn’t change a thing because I am so strong now (mentally, physically and spiritually) from everything that has happened to me and every victory and set back I have been through has made me the person I am today. The highlight would be recently when I decided going forward that I’d like to compete again, and the eagerness that I feel to run and compete again right now is so strong and powerful and I cannot wait to do what I love again,” she said determinedly.


Although, Leistra was struck by injury during the lockdown in South Africa, it still posed a different challenge for her as a runner on the mend. “Lockdown was interesting for me. Being so invested in my training and exercise being a coping mechanism for me, it was very tough for me not to be able to just go to the gym. I was injured during the whole lockdown, so running wasn’t my main priority at that stage, although that is when I actually started jogging again. I remember how difficult it was trying to do laps around my house and just getting so bored! I decided to organise a stationary bike and trained every day on it. I also focused on my rehab and strength training every day to get stronger and recover from my hamstring injury. I kept myself busy with my Masters work too.”


University Sport South Africa (USSA) has also impacted Leistra’s growth as a budding student-athlete. “USSA’s races are great for young athletes. It definitely gives them an opportunity to grow as athletes and race against some of the best athletes. I think for many athletes USSA races and competitions have been a stepping stone to competing at even higher levels. I have competed at the CUCSA Games as well as the World Students and this gives many athletes an idea of how real competition is after university, if so it happens that they continue to compete,” Leistra mentioned.


“In 2018 when I participated in the 5000m race at the CUCSA Games in Botswana, it was such an awesome experience and I met a very good friend of mine there and that’s also something running has given me – the opportunity to meet very special people,” she said happily.


Leistra is also passionate about Biokinetics and uses her knowledge not only to recover from her own injuries but also to help other people.


“As a Biokineticist and athlete I can understand the way the body works and apply that to my own training, as well as teach others about what I know,” she began to explain.


“One thing I go by is individuality and uniqueness. Every person is absolutely different and responds to things differently. What works for one person may not work for the next and that is why with my Biokinetics knowledge I can create scientifically based programs, which are individualized to the specific person. I love helping people, I love being able to hear someone else say that I have made a difference in their life.”


The Biokinetics Masters student who is headstrong and extremely determined cites herself as her inspiration to reach her goals and remain motivated. “I think right now, my inspiration is myself. If I look at where I was a year ago and where my mind was at and how I’ve overcome the mental obstacles that I was facing, as well as how far I’ve come in terms of my injury it just gives me my own inspiration to keep pushing myself. I have doubted myself so many times and wanted to give up, but I didn’t.


Motivation from now on is easy because before I made that decision to do everything in my power to heal my leg and step forward on the track again and train to race I was uncertain and lacked willpower and motivation, but I can definitely say that once I made that decision and took that leap I am more motivated that ever before,” she concluded.


We can’t wait to see you back on the track again Rachel, here’s to a steady recovery and racing again!