A new chapter in sport and faith for Parys Edwards

Date posted: 14/07/16

A new chapter in sport and faith for Parys Edwards

Turning professional at the age of 37 was the latest chapter in the life of talented sportswoman Parys Edwards.

And more than 20 years on from her international debut, the hockey player turned triathlete can reflect on how her Christian faith has formed an increasingly significant part of her sporting life.

Starting off as junior hockey international in her native Zimbabwe, she then represented South Africa at under 21 and student level. A move to England saw her win three national titles with Leicester before a new challenge dawned.

Parys, who is interviewed in the latest 'Danno meets...'podcast, took up triathlon aged 30 after being prompted by a housemate in London and was soon winning global amateur titles. Then aged 37 in 2014, she turned professional to race in the half ironman discipline.

Her Christian journey throughout this period has been far from plain sailing, but Parys has come to see how her sport can form part of her worship of God. Aged 12, Parys and twin sister Dallah were sent off to boarding school in Zimbabwe, despite their mother’s misgivings.

Parys said: “My sister has always been a good influence. She took to the Christian message straight away and I think I just followed her. I went along to the bible studies because she was going. It was a good influence at the time I needed it. I don’t think I fully appreciated it, but it was definitely a starting point of sorts.”

Parys went on to represent Zimbabwe at hockey at under 16 and under 18 level before heading off to study at Rhodes University in South Africa. Here, she fully embraced what she saw as the opportunity of student life.

She said: “We were brought up in a really strict household and boarding school was strict too. Suddenly I had every freedom. There was nothing I wasn’t allowed to do. I just went out and gave myself every freedom.

“I lived as students do. There was a drinking culture, relationships, explicit language. I just became your stereotypical student in many ways.”

At the same time, Parys was putting her all into her hockey and achieving real success. As well as playing at provincial junior and senior levels, she captained South Africa Students and was part of the under 21 and full national squads. She described fitting this around her studies as “definitely a juggle”, but actually relished the discipline she needed.

“I knew what training I had to do and I committed to it,” she said.” I have always been a real hard worker. One of my strengths as a hockey player was my fitness. I was always the last one running in the fitness tests. I loved it. I never found it a sacrifice. It was always a joy to me.”

Christian faith was still part of Parys’ life at this point, but she largely kept it separate from the other things she was doing.

“I almost compartmentalised my life at that stage,” she said. “There were areas that were so disciplined. On a Sunday I would go along to this church with a really short service, it was quite reflective. I just felt I could walk in and look at my life and say ‘this is not very good, I’m sorry God’, walk out and feel a little bit better for a few minutes and then completely forget what I had just said and get on with my week again.”

Parys had always wanted to be a sports physio and went to study the subject at Johannesburg University after graduating from Rhodes with a degree in biochemistry and microbiology. It was here that a major turning point in her career occurred. She turned down the chance to make her full international debut for South Africa in the Africa Cup as she was worried about failing her physio exams. A new coach came in after the tournament and Parys was axed from the squad.

“It was a really dark time for me,” she said. “I really struggled to keep the balance of hockey in my life. I wanted it so badly, it was the focus of everything. While studying physio, for four mornings a week, I would be getting up at 4.45am to train, then going to the hospitals to do my studies, and then training in the evening.

“I made so many sacrifices for it. I look back now on that decision. If I could change it, I would. I would have just gone to the Africa Cup and faced my supplementary exams and seen how they went.

“I decided that I couldn’t risk the exams. That decision has eaten me up because I have never got those senior caps. You work so hard with all the squad, then you watch them walk out for the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games or just being senior-capped players, and you don’t get it. It can just eat you up inside. If you want it that badly and you put it in that place in your life, it controls you.

“That was a hard time for me. It felt like everything fell apart. I felt like I had lost my identity because I was a hockey player. I was going to be a national player and now I wasn’t in the squad. I didn’t know where to put myself.”

It was at that point that another key moment in her life occurred as Dallah visited Parys in Johannesburg. Dallah simply told her: “It’s time to go back P.”

Parys said: “It was just brilliant. She went with me to church. Walking in with someone just really helped. Something just broke inside me. I just gave it all to God.”

Dallah helped Parys get involved in a bible study where quite a few of her fellow physio students also attended.

She said: “I don’t know if I would have made that step without her saying ‘let’s go’. She was absolutely key in helping me do that.”

Starting to follow Jesus meant many lifestyle changes and getting some flak from her friends.

Parys said: “It looked a bit judgemental to some of my friends, but it certainly wasn’t judgemental. I will never come from a place of judgement because I know where I have been.”

A new chapter in sport and faith for Parys Edwards

In hockey action for Leicester. Photo: Leicester Mercury

Having trained as a physio, Parys moved to Leicester to work and play for the city hockey club with whom she won three English Premiership titles and two European runners-up medals. She had only intended to stay for one season and force her way back into the South Africa set-up after that. But a combination of injury and South Africa selecting their squad early for the 2004 Olympics meant that didn’t happen.

The drinking culture at Leicester was still an issue and Parys admits that she didn’t always get it right as a Christian. However, she came up with a tactic that worked well.

She explained: “The best thing for me on nights out was to have a drinking rule and not go down the shots route. I was allowed two drinks and could have a party on that. I would have drinks and share in the revelry, but know my limits. After that, everyone was so busy drinking, they wouldn’t notice that I was on soda. I had a target for fitness tests and I had a target on nights out. That was what I was allowed.”

Having enjoyed plenty of success with Leicester, Parys moved down to London aged 30 where her work included being a physio for the England under 19 women’s football team. Here, her new housemate was a member of a triathlon club and invited Parys to have a go.

A new chapter in sport and faith for Parys Edwards

She said: “I had absolutely no knowledge, just a keenness to stay fit.”

Parys’ competitive instinct and sporting talent kicked in straight away and after four races she was representing Great Britain at amateur level. However, before her first triathlon session, Parys prayed a prayer telling God ‘whatever happens you’re in charge’.

She explained: “I was so determined not to be on that rollercoaster that I had had with hockey where if hockey was going bad, my life was bad and if hockey was good, my life was good. I didn’t want that. I said I’m making a fresh start here, I’m going to commit it to God. It’s going to have the right place in my life.”

Parys’ amateur triathlon career went from strength to strength and she won British, World and European titles over the Olympic and half ironman distances.

“Fitting the training around work was a real challenge,” she said. “I just absolutely love it. It just sucked me in. Each year I would just look at the next championship race and target that with a real zeal. It would get me out of bed at 5am for turbo sessions and to swim in cold lakes.”

The combination of work and training for swimming, cycling and running left Parys shattered and prompted her to think about retiring from triathlon.

She said: “I knew that I didn’t want to carry on racing with less training because I wouldn’t do as well. For me to pitch up and race and finish fifth when I know I could have won it, that doesn’t satisfy me.

“I thought with the 2013 world championships coming up in London, you have a home race in front of all your clubmates, win that race, if you can, and end on a high.”

Parys did win the London race and finished 45 seconds faster than any amateur female across the different age groups. Instead of bowing out, this victory ultimately led to the surprise decision of her turning professional the following year.

“It had never crossed my mind,” said Parys, but many she spoke to in the sport could not understand why not. Eventually, she took heed of their advice and looked into the prospect with a few of the contacts she had built up.

She said: “I decided I wasn’t prepared to do it and go into debt. If I could get sponsorship, I would take a year and go pro. I knocked on many doors and they all slammed shut. I was quite relieved because the decision terrified me. I had no idea how I would compete at that level.

“Then a friend just came through and secured me the bulk of the sponsorship. I decided that I needed £20,000 to do the year and I had secured £18,000. I was really quite nervous about it, but I thought I’m going to look back and wonder what could have been for the rest of my life. I quit my football job and went down to part-time at the clinic I was at. I accepted the sponsorship and just took the jump.”

A new chapter in sport and faith for Parys Edwards

Some sportspeople fear they might lose their competitive edge if they become a Christian, but that is not Parys’ experience.

“I think it’s the opposite,” she said. “I would never have imagined it like this, but I actually feel like it’s the other way around.

“I almost feel guilty that I’m a Christian and have my faith on the start line because I have a completely different perspective on the race to my fellow competitors. Sometimes we are lined up in front of the TV cameras for 15 to 20 minutes and it’s terrifying.

“We have got this race ahead of us and we are looking at the sea, which is usually rough as anything. You’re impotent. You can’t do anything. You are waiting for this race and your nerves are just through the roof. Your brain starts permutating anything that could go wrong and everyone looks fitter than you. I have seen athletes crying on the start line under the pressure.

“I get to turn to God in that and know that the outcome of my race doesn’t change eternity for me. It doesn’t change tomorrow or the next day or going on.”

“For me, it’s because I don’t put my identity in my sport. A bad day, a bad race doesn’t make for a bad Parys. There are good days and bad days in sport and training. It’s so liberating for me to not be dictated to by them and to be able to race with freedom, to race to the best of your ability, given the circumstances on the day, and honour God with all my heart.”

A new chapter in sport and faith for Parys Edwards

Parys has just come back after 10 months out with injury, but this has not altered her perspective.

She said: “The thing I have learnt is that you can trust God with your wildest dreams and hopes. I feel God made me this way and I want to honour him in my racing.

“In hockey, I tried to take control of it and wanted it so badly. It dictated me in a really destructive way. With triathlon, I just thought I’m going to honour God with this and it has exceeded my wildest dreams. It has liberated me to just be exactly the person and athlete that I wanted to be.

“I have learnt I can trust God with this and in the same way I can trust God with all the areas of my life.”

Ed Mezzetti close crop

Ed Mezzetti, City of York Athletic Club
Ed runs for City of York Athletic Club and is Digital Content Manager for Christians in Sport. He is a member of St Thomas' Church, York