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Serving the nation
- Updated: August 2, 2011
By Gary Lemke
Siren blaring, lights flashing brightly in the night, the Netcare 911 vehicle slows down at a busy Johannesburg intersection and then carefully threads its way through the traffic.
Cars pull over to make way as yet another emergency is about to be handled by ÔÇ¿a team of dedicated medical personnel despatched to the scene. They arrive to find a young man fighting for his life, a drunken altercation ending with a volley of bullets pumped into his chest. The parademics stabilise the stricken victim and await the ambulance that will take him to hospital.
This is an all-too-familiar South African scene. The country has the unfortunate reputation as one of the most violent in the world and, by definition, its paramedics are among the best to be found anywhere.
One of those is Pietie Coetzee. She is in the final year of her studies at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), where she is completing her Professional Bachelor’s Degree in Emergency Medical Care. She studies full time with the ambition of joining the ranks of one of the most demanding professions of all. That she manages to squeeze in an international hockey career ÔÇô and holds the world record for the most goals scored in Test matches ÔÇô is nothing short of remarkable.
‘I pursued paramedics because I wanted a career completely away from sport when I retired. I wanted a career where I wouldn’t be office-bound, I wanted something challenging, and one in which I could make a difference. I cannot believe how this job has challenged me,’ Coetzee, now 32 and the most revered striker in hockey with 226 goals from 228 internationals, says.
‘Being a paramedic is the most awesome job, but it can be really hectic. Fortunately the course we do at UJ is considered one of the very best in the world and we couldn’t get better training anywhere else. As an industry it has its pros and cons but I couldn’t be happier with my choice and am glad to be almost fully qualified. It helps to have an unbelievable mentor [hers is Natalie Hartnady from Milpark 911] and I work all my shifts with her.
‘We deal with heart attacks, seizures, basically anything. I once helped a lady in an office who had got her finger stuck in the paper shredder. Building collapses, fires, car accidents, drug overdoses, you name it. A 12-hour night shift starts at 6:30pm. You typically get general emergencies till about 11pm, then the trauma starts. Most of it is alcohol-related. The violence generally stops around 4am. Then we may get two hours’ sleep. Early mornings one can expect accidents on the highway either due to partygoers returning home or an all-night driver who has fallen asleep.’
Coetzee was recently in the headlines again when she broke the two-decade-old world record of the former Soviet captain Natella Krasnikova, easing past 220 international goals with four against the United States in the Champions Challenge in Ireland. She ended the tournament on 226 goals and her tally of nine was the most scored in the competition.
‘Breaking the world record was a massive career highlight for me. It now feels as though there is some kind of ÔÇ£titleÔÇØ to the achievement and that whatever happens going forward, no one will be able to take away the fact that I’m a world record holder. Having said that, hockey is a wonderful team sport and without a great group of players alongside me I’d never have come this far.’
Coetzee had spent five years in the international wilderness ÔÇô she called┬á time on her career in 2005 to pursue her studies, but she kept fit by running, doing Ironman and playing golf ÔÇô and resurfaced before the 2010 World Cup in Rosario to hunt down Krasnikova’s milestone. ‘I used to keep her name and the number ÔÇ£220ÔÇØ written on a note in my kitbag as daily motivation,’ the widely-travelled South African says. ‘In fact, it’s still in my bag and I’ll probably change it soon, but I’m not sure what to change it to. Maybe it will be to up my averages, or 250 goals.’
Born in Bloemfontein in 1978, Coetzee loved the outdoors and sport and it wasn’t long before hockey seemed made for her ball skills and natural hand-eye co-ordination. Still 16 and in Grade 11, she became South Africa’s youngest-ever hockey international, making her debut against Spain in the Atlanta Challenge Cup, before representing her country a few months later at the 1995 All Africa Games in Harare.
It wasn’t all a free ride to stardom, though. Because she had so much talent, coaches would invariably leapfrog her through age groups. As a youngster she was already a standout figure, a natural striker who could rip the best defences to shreds. The fact that she was selected ahead of older players created as much of a stir back then as ‘quota selections’ in various sporting codes do now. ‘The older players always had an issue with that ÔÇô especially their parents. They could be quite spiteful and nasty. But as I got older such bitchiness affected me less and less. I silenced them with what I could do once we started playing.
‘I was never childish as a youngster so I reckon it helped that I wasn’t annoying off the field and I didn’t rub people up the wrong way. I’m pretty much a quiet person who has always liked to surround myself with family, friends and loved ones.’
Had Coetzee been born in Australia, she’d have had four Olympic Games appearances behind her and a guaranteed fifth in London next year. She is the most feared operator in history with a strike rate of practically a goal a match and one shudders to think what she might have achieved had she played in another country where women’s hockey is full-time professional. If she were born British, she’d already have visited the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
She is the undisputed queen of the drag flick, and her reflexes, movement and shooting skills are the stuff of legends in the sport. Yet for all her achievements, she has appeared in only two Olympics ÔÇô at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 ÔÇô and this strong character is hoping South Africa’s Olympic body, Sascoc, sends a hockey squad to London next year.
When Sascoc president Gideon Sam arrived in office in 2008 he did so saying South Africa was aiming for ’12 [medals] in 12′ and that he would be judged against that tally. As things stand, around a year away from London, most Olympic watchers will agree that if the Games were held today, the country would be fortunate to win four medals.
Caster Semenya (women’s 800m) and Cameron van der Burgh (100m breaststroke) could be two bankers, and maybe cycling’s Burry Stander is a realistic possibility, but the hope for a fourth would depend on a ‘surprise on the day’. Indeed, if winning medals was the sole criteria for selection to an Olympics, South Africa could fit their entire squad and officials in a minibus pulling their kit in a Venter trailer.
Women’s hockey, as of the end of June, missed out because it didn’t make the final at the Champions Challenge, as stipulated by Sascoc. Coetzee however, cut an animated figure at the time. ‘It’s not even a blip, not even a hiccup,’ she said of the extra-time defeat to Spain, after the Proteas had won Pool A.
‘The tournament used an experimental International Hockey Federation format and couple the ridiculous structure with the match-turning decisions of the umpires against us means nothing in terms of the quality of this team.’
Pointing to South Africa’s 37 sorties into Spain’s circle in Dublin, compared to the five of their opponents, and triple the number of shots on goal, with the result still ending in defeat, Coetzee said: ‘There is no way anyone can say we stuffed up. If you look at the stats, does the fact that Spain sneaked a win make them a better team than us? We are on course to developing a world-beating team. This takes time and can’t happen overnight.’
In January, the Proteas hammered world champions Argentina 4-0 at the University of the Free State and it was a performance that caught Sam’s attention. ‘That was a very good result and the lessons learnt is that it is possible to deal with the big guns.’
And the energetic minister of sport, Fikile Mbalula, is also a fan. In February he urged the South African public to support hockey the same way they do the ‘Big Three’. ‘The national women’s hockey team has a fantastic plan to go up from No 12 to the top six at the 2012 Olympics,’ he said. So, despite the perceived failure to reach the final in Dublin, all would not seem a lost cause for London next year.
Coetzee is passionate about women’s sport and believes that it’s not taken seriously enough in South Africa. She does have a point. As a virtual assembly of amateurs, that the Proteas can be as competitive as they are, shows that they punch well above their weight.
‘It’s incredibly frustrating being a female sportsperson in South Africa. ÔÇ¿We think we are a sporting country. In fact our culture is about rugby, cricket and soccer. Our society does not care much for wider sport. It cares for those three mainstream sports, all of which are male-dominated. It is so frustrating to do a sport and be a female in such an environment. I wish we could just ÔÇ¿be appreciated for what we are.
‘We don’t want to compete with the men because you can’t compare apples with pears … but surely we can just be enjoyed as a pear? Of course, having said that I must admit I often wish I had the opportunity to do what Manchester United and England striker Wayne Rooney does for the amount of money ÔÇ¿he does it for. And I don’t believe he is any more talented or hard working than me.
‘And, I’m not even going to begin to talk about our local provincial cricketers who get paid to do what they do. Whoa, now that is frustrating!’
Given that Coetzee has scored those world record 226 international goals and is hurtling towards her 33rd birthday in September, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s nearing the endgame. Yet, the prolific striker is adamant that plenty lies ahead. ‘I’m always looking to improve and there are areas where I’m working hard. I’m really enjoying this ÔÇ£second careerÔÇØ after five years out of the game.
‘There’s an expression that says youth is wasted on the young and I think it’s so true. As a younger player I had weight issues and if I regret anything in life it’s probably that. Only in later years was I able to get my weight under control and now I have no problems, but I wish I’d been able to do so earlier.’
In terms of positives, her whole career is like a DVD highlights reel. One match that stands out in the memory, though, was back in 2003 when South Africa came up against the vaunted Australians in a pre-Olympic tournament in Athens. ‘Overall, I’m the type who struggles to remember details and specific moments and incidents. However, at this event I remember scoring the perfect hat-trick ÔÇô all three were with a reverse stick. If I may say so, they were cracking goals.
‘It was amazing to be able to execute them in the way I did. I managed to work out a weakness in their defence and it felt great to nail them on it. Normally it works the other way around!’
Coetzee is a popular figure, underscored by the fact that when she broke Krasnikova’s record against the US in June, her team-mates revealed T-shirts that said, ‘I played with Pietie when she broke the world record!’ but away from it all she dives into her degree, her future career and solitude.
One of her escapes from the demands of her studies, her 911 callouts and her hockey is her dog. ‘Yes,’ she says with a smile that lights up the room. ‘I own the most beautiful springer spaniel called Shuga. She ensures I have balance in my life by forcing me to go to the park and outdoors twice a day every single day.’
This story appears in the August issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, on sale now. Lemke is publishing director of Highbury Safika Media.