Meet Alyssa Conley: She’s an Olympic sprinter-cum-rugby sevens athlete who cherishes consistency, believing in yourself – and cheat days!
Did you know that Michael Jordan (arguably the greatest basketball star of all time) was also a phenomenal baseball player? Turns out South Africa has its own Michael Jordan in the form of Olympic sprinter Alyssa Conley who’s just swapped her track spikes for rugby boots!
After the World Cup Sevens last year, the women’s team coach, Paul Delport, and his conditioning coach, Tim Qumbu, decided they didn’t have enough speed. So how could that be instantly improved? By hiring one of the fastest women in South Africa, with a personal best of 11.23 seconds for the 100m sprint. It’s easy to see how that could be useful on the rugby field. ‘My biggest challenge is to break through my fitness threshold because with sevens, it’s not about how fast you run, but about how fast you can run repeatedly!’ Alyssa says.
Another benefit of being a rugby novice is that no time need be spent eliminating bad habits from previous decades of play. But that doesn’t make the challenge of learning all the rules, learning how to change direction and suddenly stop and, perhaps most gruelling, learning to take a hit – a big one at that.
Alyssa’s up to the challenge, however. ‘I realised I needed a new challenge in life and I wanted to move out of my comfort zone. I’ve been in an individual sport for so long and I wanted to try a team sport. I’m just trying to be an advocate for women in sport, proving that if you work hard and believe in yourself, you can achieve anything.’
The transition has been going well, helped along by the inclusion of ShadowBall training alongside the women’s sevens training. The ShadowBall is half a rugby ball that rebounds off any wall and enables solo training, allowing players to work on their skills when the team isn’t practising. The Pass Booster programme has been proved to boost passing and catching abilities by as much as 266 per cent in four weeks. Alyssa credits the ShadowBall training as being integral to her swift mastery of a completely foreign sporting discipline.
‘Training with the ShadowBall has been very beneficial for me,’ says Alyssa.
‘The training has helped me to integrate into the new sport and overcome my personal challenges. It enables and accelerates quick movements and reaction time and it’s helped immensely to be able to continue practicing at home on my own.’
Alyssa works out six days a week, with three to four sessions a day, with each session lasting at least an hour. She admits to always wanting to skip workouts (so it’s not just us) but her motivation pulls her through.
‘So many women are following my career path and transition, so that keeps me motivated. They send me messages of encouragement and that keeps my perseverance high – I never want to give up. I’m also surrounded by a lot of positivity from my family and friends. They all keep me motivated and believe in me.’
Alyssa’s also willing to take it easy – sometimes. ‘I have a lot of cheat days. Most of my days are cheat days. I love eating! My favourite cheat meal is sushi but I also can’t resist anything my mother bakes. If I’m fat one day, we’ll blame it on my mother.’
So what does a day in Alyssa’s life look like? ‘First, coffee. I’m a coffee addict. I then go to do my first session in the morning. I love training in the morning! Next I’ll see a few clients because I do personal training. Then I go for another session of either running or else skills and conditioning with Shadowball Academy. Then I coach athletics at a high school. After that, I do another workout if it’s on my programme.’
You can spot Alyssa training at the Crossfit gym at World of Rugby wearing her favourite Nike workout clothes. ‘I enjoy a bit of weight-training mixed with high-intensity cardio. Running is actually my least favourite, believe it or not.’ It is pretty hard to believe as she first started running at an age when most kids are still figuring out how to tie their shoelaces. ‘I got into track at the age of four. I’d been running for about 21 years before I decided to make the switch. I always wanted to be an Olympian.’ Now that dream has been achieved and her track goals have been met. Next up is the qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for Rugby Sevens in October, but we know Alyssa’s got it all in hand. ‘My athletics career has taught me about perseverance and mental strength,’ she explains.
‘I want to use these assets and be an inspiration for women everywhere, showing what’s possible through hard work.’