Breaking Barriers Through Common Ground
At the age of 17, Suleila Dreyer has received over 22 awards for rowing but the greatest gift the sport has given her is not a medal but a better understanding of people.
Suleila was born in Retreat to a family of combined religions, her mother was Muslim and her father was Christian.
“I didn’t notice anything different about our family, I would have Christmas with my dad’s family and Eid with my mother’s family. Growing up I felt accepted by everyone.”
“We used to stay in a wendy house in the back yard of my grandmother’s house. But when I was three-years-old, we moved to live in a small house in Lotus River.”
“Growing up I would always be running, playing soccer, just being active. I really enjoyed doing anything physical. When I’m playing and I win, it gives me the best feeling in the world.”
Suleila is an outgoing and outspoken person, so to make friends has always been an easy task for her.
“I find it easy to make friends. My friends were all from our neighbourhood. We had things in common we liked the same music and we had the same beliefs so it was easy being around them.”
After joining high school, a teacher approached Suleila’s class and asked who would be interested in rowing – a sport predominantly practiced in affluent areas by white people. Suleila says that she was interested so she signed up.
“When we started I really enjoyed it. I loved how free I felt when I was on the water. At the beginning it was tough because I had no idea of what to do. We had good coaches so they showed us the technique, it was a completely new experience and I think I fell in love with it from the beginning.”
Having showed a skill for the sport, Suleila was chosen to join the Western Cape Rowing Club in Grade 8, only a few weeks after she joined.
“I was really happy when I joined the club, my parents were very proud of me too. The training was hard because we would have to practice every Tuesday and Friday. When it was close to the race day we would practice every day. I looked forward to the practice because when I was rowing I felt like all probems would be gone – stress at school or at home would no longer matter. It was just me and the boat.”
Suleila and her team mates would practice rowing on water at Zeekoevlei lake and on special occasions they would practice on rowing equipment at the University of Cape Town.
“My coach was merciless, she pushed us very hard. I was the youngest in our team but that didn’t matter to her. I feel like that really gave me a lesson for life, because even when I’m tired at school I push through and try my best.”
Suleila would go on to achieve great heights in her rowing and academic life. She received her first medal for rowing when she was 13, a bronze medal.
“I loved the open space and the strength required when rowing. I really enjoyed pushing through the pain and challenge myself.”
It was during a race in Grade 10 that Suleila says she learned one of her greatest life lessons.
“A regatta (rowing race day) was taking place in Zeekoevlei and I attended with my club. There weren’t enough girls in the team to make up a quad. So the organisers put in a mix team – that included members of all competing clubs – for a 200m race. I remember not feeling that great about rowing with girls from other clubs because I didn’t know them. We were also from different parts of Cape Town and different racial backgrounds, so I thought we would have nothing to talk about. I just preferred to row and be with the people from my neighbourhood. But I really wanted to take part in the regatta so I joined the mix team.”
Suleila says that one member of the team was a girl named Pier, a rower she had met before under different circumstances.
“We had seen each other at a previous regatta. We had competed against each other, her team PGC (Peninsula Girls Club) came third and we came fourth. But after the race the organisers found out that they didn’t weigh their boat, and their team was disqualified and we received their medals. We went over to their team to apologise for what happened but they didn’t take much note of us, they just ignored us.”
“When we saw each other we greeted each other at the beginning of the race but only started talking after our team won. She told me that she had a shoulder injury and that her team and coach had wrote her off so she wasn’t able to attend the SA Champs in Johannesburg. I told that I’m not attending Champs either because our team didn’t have enough female rowers who were experienced for the competition. I was surprised that we had something in common.”
“After the race, I was walking home from the regatta when I saw this big van pull up next to us. It was Pier and her father. Her dad asked me if I would be interested in being Pier’s doubles partner at the Champs. I remember at first I wasn’t sure because we were complete opposites and spoke for the first time 30 minutes ago. But I really wanted to go to the Champs, so I agreed. We exchanged numbers and while I was telling my mommy about it, her dad called. He told my mommy that they would take care of all the finances and that they think I will be a great partner for Pier. My mom spoke to my dad, and they agreed that it was a great opportunity for me.”
Suleila and Pier spoke on the phone and agreed that they would practice every morning from 06:30 to 07:30 before school because they only had a week to practice before the race day.
“They would fetch me at home each day. On the first day we were training they were late, because they didn’t know where Lotus River was. They lived in Constantia and I guess because they weren’t familiar with this side they would get lost.”
“Training was gruelling, we didn’t have a coach so we trained by ourselves. We realised that we really complement each other’s rowing technique. She was more technical and I was passionate and had more strength – so we made a good team.”
Suleila travelled to Johannesburg with Pier and Pier’s mother on the Monday before the race, because Pier’s family believed that they needed time to acclimatise.
“We stayed at a lodge, we had the top story, and her mother was at the bottom. They were strict about eating at the same time and having pasta for supper every night before the race. At home, I would eat whatever before the race I didn’t want to add to my parent’s stress by asking specifically for certain foods. I remember Pier was obsessed with BioPlus (an energy and vitamin tonic) she said that it will help us race faster and perform better. I would laugh and kept telling her that nothing but God will help us in the race. She was not religious, and we would often talk about why she chose not to believe in God.”
“I couldn’t understand why she didn’t believe, but I did learn that I can’t push my beliefs on someone else. We would never argue about it, but would have long discussions about it.”
Suleila says that she noticed many differences between her reality back home and living with Pier’s family.
“From time to acclimatise, to special food, to having a shower all was different. At home we have a bath but no geyser, so if we want warm water we need to boil water in the kettle and fill it. Its such a nuisance that the majority of times I just prefer washing myself in a bucket. Another difference is that whenever they needed something they would just go to the shop. Without worrying about if there was enough money to buy what they needed. At home, money is tight – but we always make a plan.”
Even though, Suleila says that she enjoyed the luxuries while in Johannesburg she missed being home.
“Over the time that I was there, Pier and I found out that we have some things in common and I learned from her, especially regarding the nutrition part of rowing. But, I would think about what my family would be doing at home.”
On the race day, Suleila says that they were both nervous and excited.
“I prayed for us to win and that we have a good time, she insisted we drink BioPlus.”
The race was between Suleila and Pier as an independent pair and two PGC teams.
“I think Pier was happy to see that we were racing against PGC, because she was discarded from the team who went to Joburg – she wanted to show them what she can do and that she was good enough. We won the race and the feeling was indescribable.”
“We felt great because we came together from opposite worlds through our love and passion for rowing and we proved our talent. Through a common passion and a common goal, all barriers disappeared.”
“This experience has showed me that I used to be quick to judge people. I know that before I would look at the other competitors and assume that their lives were perfect based on where they came from. After I had the opportunity to spend time with Pier I have learned that even though our lives are different that does not make them better – I would have never admit this before, but deep down I thought white people were better. Now I know we are just the same.”
Suleila concludes by saying: “Today I don’t assume or judge people by what they look like or where they come from. I have stopped comparing, I know now that we are all different but in the most fundamental things we are all equal. I am ready to get to know people just for who they really are.”
Suleila is a Leaders’ Quest participant, an intervention offered by Salesian Life Choices.