Meeting a woman who has swum to Robben Island, pulled heavy trucks and a 13 ton aircraft, using nothing but her own body strength, can be quite intimidating, and I expected the feats listed on Melkbosstrand resident Liesl Schoonraad’s CV to match her appearance.
However, the person I pictured meeting, complete with muscle shirt and crew cut, did not show up. Instead a woman with soft blue eyes, blonde hair and a pleasant smile settled across the table from me at a Bayside Mall restaurant. I was about to learn, as she spoke about her journey from being an architect to a motivational speaker and the ambassador for the Reeva Rebecca Steenkamp Foundation, that Liesl’s femininity and emotional strength far outweigh her ability to lift 600kg off the ground.
Liesl says she had never been a fan of public speaking, but that changed when started pursuing her passion to help others.
“I was invited to speak to children at schools about bullying, but I don’t like to use the word bullying, it’s abuse. I was bullied at school because I was a big girl. I felt like an outsider and because I felt like an outside, I got treated as one.”
But she believes the abuse she endured gives her a level of empathy and compassion for the children she speaks to now.
“When I go to schools I walk up to them and say, if I can pull a plane, then you can tell me why you are bullying.”
Her motivational speaking career started shortly after she decided to tackle a personal goal she had set for herself as a child by swimming to Robben Island. It’s something she did at the age of 40.
“I was about eight years old when I told my friends that I wanted to swim to Robben Island, and they said I couldn’t do it. I thought to myself, I probably can’t if they say so. Only at age 39 did I do some soul searching and I told myself I can do it if I put my mind to it. So I did it on my 40th birthday.”
After experiencing the “drug” of accomplishment, Liesl embraced her newly discovered body strength and continued testing her abilities by challenging herself to pull a 10 ton truck.
“I loved the strong-man competition, and there was no strong woman competition in SA at the time. So I decided to pull a 10 ton truck. After I pulled the truck, I decided to pull a Dakota plane, and while pulling the plane, my Achilles tendon snapped. I grinned at the doctor when he told me that I won’t be able to do heavy pulling again,” chuckles Liesl.
After recovering from her injury, Liesl competed in the first strong woman competition in the country in 2012, and decided to retire from her passion for strength and embrace a career as a motivational speaker.
However, her lust for lifting has pulled her out of retirement, and Liesl is planning to flip 100kg tyre 500 times in October, on behalf of the Reeve Rebecca Steenkamp Foundation.
Liesl got involved with the organisation through her contact with Ms Steenkamp’s cousin, Kim Martin, who lives in Table View and helped the organisation, which helps abused women and a children – a cause close to Liesl’s heart.
Reeva was due to give a speech at a school in Johannesburg about women abuse on the day she was killed, says Kim.
“Empowering girls is something Reeva wanted to do, and shortly after Reeva’s death, Auntie June (Reeva’s mother, June Steenkamp) decided that she wanted to start the organisation to educate others through the organisation and eventually open up a safe house for those abused woman and children,” says Kim.
The organisation will officially launch on Friday August 19, Reeva’s birthday, and will allow Reeva’s voice to continue through the work championed by Liesl, Kim and the Steenkamp family.
“I am honoured to be an ambassador for the organisation. Reeva was very much against the abuse of women and children,” says Liesl. “The tyre flip is symbolic of endurance and strength those who have been abused need to have. The weight of it is tough, but you need the strength to flip it over and turn your situation around. Strength is about picking yourself up when life knocks you down.”
Visit www.reevasteenkampfoundation.org for details.