All Hannele Steyn ever wanted was to be good at sport. But her body decided otherwise. Born with a hole in her heart, doctors told her she would never be able to lead an active life. Steyn stubbornly rejected their advice and her parents’ wishes and tried every sport she could. She didn’t get very far at first.
In sprints, Steyn came last. For group sports, she only made the second team. She was kicked out of gymnastics. Still, Steyn kept trying. In high school, she discovered endurance sports like long-distance running. The harder Steyn trained, the better she got and her health improved. It was the start of a lifelong journey to becoming one of South Africa’s most accomplished athletes.
Steyn travelled the world, competing in triathlons and duathlons, and earning national colours. By 1995, she decided to retire after spending five years living abroad. She planned to return to South Africa and lead a restful life. Then Steyn began mountain biking. Soon, she was itching to compete.
In her first race, she placed third – unacceptable for someone who had always pushed herself. Training harder, mentally and physically, Steyn improved and eventually received national colours. In 2004, the Cape Epic was created. A gruelling multi-day cycle through rocky terrain, the event is a notorious feat to accomplish. It’s also Steyn’s specialty.
The mountain biker took first place in 2005 and has completed all 15 Epics since its inception. As one of only four people to do so, Steyn is part of an exclusive group known as the Last Lions.
Her impact on the event has been recognised in the form of the Hannele Steyn Trophy, awarded for the first time this year to the African women’s team. “I hope I can inspire women by what I’ve achieved in my life because I’ve really worked hard for it,” Steyn says. With her dogged determination and unwavering enthusiasm, she has cemented herself as an icon of South African sport, even with a hole in her heart.