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Warning: This article contains themes about suicide and self-harm
Despite the devastating physical impact, Tazmin Brits clearly remembers the moment that changed her life.
The song on the radio. The smell of dirt. How she rolled on the floor. See his javelin tips fly through the air.
It was November 2011. Within seconds of his car going career off the road, Britain’s Olympic dream was shattered.
What followed was seven years spent “in a hole” so deep that she contemplated suicide.
Now, in a remarkable story of resilience and redemption, she is preparing to play for South Africa at the Women’s World Cup in New Zealand.
“I try to stay calm, but I want to stand on my balcony shouting that I’m at a World Cup,” says the 31-year-old hitter. “I would sleep in my Proteas shirt if I could.”
Hailing from Stilfontein, a mining town southwest of Johannesburg, a sporting life was always likely for the Brits, whose mother played tennis and father and older brother played rugby.
While she tried to compete with boys in football and rugby, in addition to playing hockey and netball, it was with the javelin that she really excelled.
In 2007, a 16-year-old Briton was crowned junior world champion in Ostrava, Czech Republic. At the same event, 2012 Olympic champion Kirani James won silver in the men’s 400m.
“I had one throw left,” Brits recalled. “I heard my mom in the background. She’s going everywhere. ‘Go Taz!’ It irritates you.
“I started clapping and the whole stadium was clapping.
“I threw this thing, I screamed on the line, I looked and I was like ‘is that enough’? When it appeared on the board, I went crazy. I took the South African flag for a victory lap. It was a great experience.”
Brits, who has the Olympic rings tattooed inside her right bicep, was ready for the 2012 Games in London after throwing the qualifying distance.
Eight months before they could make it happen, Brits were heading home after a night out with friends. She looked down at her phone and lost control of the car.
As she tried to correct the steering to get back on the road, it caused the car to roll. She was not wearing a seat belt and was thrown out the window. The car landed on her, causing her to fracture her pelvis, dislocated her hip and burst her bladder.
“I tried to move,” she said. “I was like ‘get up, get up’, but I realized I couldn’t feel my legs anymore because of my broken pelvis.
“I thought maybe I was paralyzed. When I woke up in hospital I heard my mum crying.
“The first thing you do is feel your legs. You check, you lift the blanket. Are you okay?”
Brits was hospitalized for three months and was only able to leave in a wheelchair. Despite the extent of her injuries, she still believed she could make it to London.
“That’s how crazy I was,” she explains. “I thought maybe my body wasn’t okay, but in my head I still know how to throw.
“I had to learn how to get up to put the pan under me to urinate, or get out of bed to stand on a chest of drawers. I had to learn to walk. When I got home, my mother had to help me. shower and get dressed. They said it would take a year, but I did it in seven months.
“You always want to be part of those miracle stories, where you prove someone wrong. I’m still not 100% functional in some things, but everyday life I can do that.”
Brits’ recovery was complicated by bone growing over a screw in her pelvis, requiring further surgery and rehabilitation.
Although she didn’t believe those who initially told her she would no longer throw, London came and went, the Brits no longer had the javelin and her mental state had soured.
“You can’t explain the trauma someone is going through,” she says.
“After a few months, friends and family move on with their lives. They expect you to do the same, so you’re fighting yourself.
“You’re so used to this thing. You cling to it. If it’s gone or taken out of your life, it can’t be replaced. There’s nothing else for you.”
With her life as a professional athlete over, Brits worked as a waitress and in a grocery store, only to deal with regular reminders of her old life.
“People were like, ‘aren’t you that javelin-throwing girl?'” she recalled.
The Brits spent time with psychiatrists, but continued to fall. Suicidal thoughts entered her head about how she could end her life. “Luckily, nothing planned,” she said.
All the while, the Brits played cricket, which she said was for “socializing and having fun”. It wasn’t until she faced the javelin again, in January 2018, that she began to turn her life around.
“I thought ‘it’s a new year, that’s me. I’m going to train again.’
“I had to dust off my javelin because it had cobwebs on it. I went to my old high school and was so impatient that I didn’t bother throwing anything light, like a tennis ball.
“I picked up the javelin and threw it. I tried to measure with my strides. ‘OK, it’s about 40m. I still feel good, here we go again’. I ended up there spend two or three hours.
“I was thinking ‘who are these people telling me I can’t pitch?’ I got in the car, put my favorite song on full blast and drove home thinking, ‘I’ve got this. I’m making a comeback.”
The British returned, winning low-level competitions. However, while she was back to throwing the javelin, her cricket was also steadily improving. The points arrived at the provincial level and the Britons quickly became one of the best hitters on the national circuit.
The career of the javelin will come to an end again, this time under fortunate circumstances.
“There was a week of provincial games where I was in the top three scorers. At the end, I got a call from the management. They asked me what size I was wearing, what number I wanted, to say that ‘they wanted me to join the emerging cast of Proteas,’ says Brits.
The Brits made their South Africa debut in a Twenty20 against Bangladesh in May 2018. Initially seen as a specialist in the shortest format, the right-winger had a regular place in the 50-year-old squad for the series win against the West Indies in January and was the Proteas’ third top scorer.
Although she admires fellow South African Quinton de Kock, Brits admits his idiosyncratic technique is more reminiscent of Australian Steve Smith.
“Never in my life would I have thought this would have happened,” Brits says. “I may not be a javelin thrower now but, you know what, I represent my country.
“Once I’ve sung the first national anthem at the World Cup, that’s when it will sink in. I might have to carry a whole roll of toilet paper in my pocket. You try to be brave and try not to look silly. If I cry, I cry.”
There is still a tinge of sadness in Brits history, following the death of her father from Covid-19 in March last year.
“He would have been very proud,” Brits said, his voice cracking with emotion. She explains that she carries with her a small red figure of a man her father once found in the sea.
Despite his loss, Britons can appreciate how his story unfolded so differently from a flirtation with tragedy.
“It’s my second chance,” she said. “I’m grateful to just be alive.
“What would I say to the Tazmin who was lying in the hospital, or who was sizing up the closet?
“I would say ‘We made it. It was worth it.'”
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