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  • Writer's pictureMosibodi Whitehead

'Age is just a number' - Phalula twins turn 38 with no plans of slowing down

After almost forty years on planet Earth, the Phalula twins are still going strong. Lebo and Lebogang first burst onto the running scene in the year 2000 as a pair of barefoot teenagers who were troubling seniors over 800m and 1500m. Over twenty years later, the twins are still competing and regularly appear in the top ten of races against competitors almost two decades their junior. And South Africa's most famous running duo, who turn 38 today say they have no intention of slowing down.

"Through my training I am more disciplined," Lebo told room full of journalists ahead of the Absa DURBAN 10K CITYRUN which took place on the 30th of October. "When I say I want something, I remain positive on what I want to achieve. I always focus on my training and I just keep away my age because it's just a number," explained the mother of toddler Olwethu who finished 8th overall in the 2021 SPAR Grand Prix Series.

The Phalua twins pray together after finishing in first and second during the 2015 Old Mutual Half Marathon. Photo Credit: Roger Sedres.

As the only black woman to represent South Africa in an Olympic marathon, Lebo Phalula will go down in history as a running pioneer. On the 14th of August 2016 the Sowetan donned the green and gold as she raced through the streets of Brazil in what was a culmination of a lifelong ambition. “I’ll be forever proud of that achievement because it inspires other girls to dream. To be the first black woman to represent the country in the marathon was a big thing,” said the Boxer Athletic Club top runner who took 63rd place on that day in Rio with a time of 2:41:46.

Diepkloof, Soweto is where that Olympic dream was born when she and twin sister Lebogang started running barefoot at Boepakitso Primary School. Lebo and Lebogang’s natural athletic ability enchanted Siphiwe Ncube who was a teacher with an eye for talent. Ncube first set about changing The Phalula Twins from sprinters into middle distance runners and then he introduced them to Hans Saestad who headed up one of the best junior athletics programmes in the country at the Vorentoe High School in Johannesburg. Oom Hans organised a pair of athletics scholarships which brought the twins under his guidance and they blossomed.

The twins in action during the 2015 ASA Senior Track and Field Championships. Photo Credit: Roger Sedres.

Before long the lanky runners from Soweto were winning races around the country, beating seasoned campaigners and catching the attention of elite clubs. In 2001 as 17 year olds Lebo and her sister joined the famed Wanderers Athletic Club and rubbed shoulders with such legendary athletes as Matthews ‘Loop en Val’ Motshwarateu just months before his passing in November of that year. The Wanderers enjoyed some of the best coaching in the land including Richard Mayer and a future Athletics South Africa coach of the year Lungile Bikwani. The young Bikwani led of group of Soweto-based Wanderers athletes known as the Soweto Kenyans. That group boasted the likes of Tshamano Setone who would take the national 5000m scene by storm in the mid 2000’s.

Under coach Lungi's guidance, the twins were simply unstoppable. Lebo won seven national titles over 1500m and 5000m, while Lebogang was unbeatable over 800m earning three national titles, a fourth place at the African Championships and an impressive personal best of 2:02.43 set way back in 2006. Although only one of them would go on to become an Olympian, it was very much a shared achievement.

Lebo Phalula still runs barefoot to this day. Here she is pictured going head-to-head against Cacisile Sosibo at the Central Gauteng Athletics Cross Country trials in January 2021. Photo Credit: Donald Mathipa.

"Athletics is an individual sport. But most of the time I like to do teamwork with my sister because whether she wins or I win it goes to the Phalula household," is their philosophy. As for calling it a day, Lebo says she continues to be inspired by 41-year old Helalia Johannes who took the South African road running circuit by storm in 2019 as a 39-year old.

The Namibian won the 2018 Commonwealth Games marathon, a bronze medal in the marathon at the World Championships in Doha while setting a new 10km personal best of 30:59 on the way to winning the 2019 SPAR Women's Grand Prix Series. "Because if I tell myself that I am old and I can't do this anymore, it will happen. But if I tell myself that I am still young like Kayla (Cavanagh) and Glenrose then I can run fast times with them, because they will push you to be fast," she smiled.

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