South Africa: Lighting a Candle for Love, Victory and Country

Akani Simbine and Jo Prins find strength in each other, their faith and being able to share what it takes to be the best in their respective sports. Theirs is really ... er ... a match made in heaven.

South Africa now officially boasts the fastest man on the continent. It took just 9.84 seconds for Akani Simbine to earn that title in Hungary on 6 July - apart from the years of training leading up to that point, of course. But that blistering run places him second fastest in the world this year and firmly among potential Olympic 100m medallists in Japan.

That Olympic final is now just a matter of weeks away, with the heats run on 31 July and the final on 1 August, which means Simbine is peaking at exactly the right time. But as he lines up on the Tokyo track gunning to become the first South African since 1908 to claim Olympic 100m gold, his fiancée will have to watch it on television in Cape Town owing to the Covid-19 regulations.

Simbine proposed to Jo Prins in November last year. Under normal circumstances, she would have been inside the stadium on what might just be a life-changing night for the 27-year-old speedster. "I'm still kind of bummed that I won't be able to watch it live because I've been looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics for years," admitted Prins. "Who could have predicted a worldwide pandemic would happen and prevent that live Tokyo experience from happening?

"I haven't really thought about where I will be watching it, but I will probably be watching it with our family somewhere, either here at our house or at his parents' house, or something like that."

Prins is well accustomed to dealing with the pressure that Simbine will be feeling. She's been playing top-class netball for years and represented South Africa at Under-21 level. When it comes to being in the supporter's role, it's very different, however.

"There's little that can really compare to the feeling you get before you compete in a big tournament or big game, standing in the tunnel waiting to run out on court. I can't even describe the feeling. It's madness, it's really one of the best feelings ever and one of the reasons why you keep doing what you're doing," she explained.

"But that feeling of me, myself competing and the feeling of him competing and me watching are two completely different things. Watching him I get super nervous. There's this thing in my throat and my stomach, like butterflies, and my palms get sweaty. It's more stressful. But I'm not thinking, oh, he's not going to be good. It's just that thing of wanting it to be good so badly because you know how hard your person works and what he puts in. You see all the behind the scenes and you just want him to do his best.

"I look calm and composed, but inside I'm really nervous. If I'm at home, I always light a candle and say a prayer before every race ... That's something I've got from my mom - you always light a candle and you pray so that the person you are praying for gets those good vibes and energy and feels a sense of calm before they do whatever they have to do."

An online beginning

Going back to the start, Prins and Simbine met online several years ago. "Akani and I knew of each other long before we actually met and got together, and we had a lot of mutual friends. We followed each other on Instagram and then eventually it went down in the DM [direct messages]. We exchanged numbers and then when he was done with his European season, he flew down to Cape Town and spent a week there and it kind of went from there and just kept blossoming," explained Prins.

Simbine has nothing but praise for Prins and the influence she's had on his life and career. "Her support has had a lot of impact on my career because she's been there through thick and thin. She's pulled me out of my deepest, darkest places," he said. "It's really great to have a partner that supports you, supports your career and understands your sacrifices, and understands that your career is only this short and you need to put in everything you can to make sure you achieve what you can.

"It's not a normal lifestyle or a normal job where I can be working until I'm 40, or not even 40, until I'm 60, so it's really great to have someone like her ... I've always known that she was the one. She's been really, really, really amazing since the beginning. It's just been her and I and we've been through it all. She's special."

While Prins may be in the role of loyal supporter for the next few weeks, she isn't too keen on the WAG (wives and girlfriends) tag. That's because come 2023, if all goes according to plan, the roles will be reversed with Simbine watching nervously as Prins takes to the court at the International Netball Federation's World Cup on home soil in Cape Town.

"Ever since I can remember, my dream was to wear the green and gold and represent this beautiful, diverse country I love so much on the international stage, and that dream has not changed," said Prins. "When I was little, I wanted to be Bronwyn Bock when I grew up. She was the Proteas captain a couple of years back and I really admired her because I could see my face reflected in hers - a beautiful and strong Coloured woman leading the Proteas team.

"I would love to be who Bronwyn Bock was to me, and I would want the little Coloured girls in South Africa to look at me and see their faces reflected in mine. For me, 'play to inspire' has always been something I've tried to do, and this is more than just a game for me. It's part of who I am. So my long-term goals would definitely be to represent my country, hopefully at the Commonwealth Games and after that the World Cup in 2023."

Shared support and values

Meanwhile, Simbine is fast getting up to speed on the ins and outs of Prins' sport. "My knowledge of netball is growing with each and every day and moment and every time she talks to me about netball and when I watch her play," he admitted.

"I normally watch her online because our seasons kind of collide. So I'll watch her there and then if I can, if I'm in the country, I will try to get to her games and watch her play. I do get nervous. Netball is rough, so I do get nervous for her, but I know she's got her thing and she plays really well and hard and she handles it really well."

Both Simbine and Prins admitted they had previously always tried to avoid dating fellow athletes. "It's funny because both of us have said that we would never date a sportsperson and now we're ending up getting married to one," said Prins. "But it's actually been such a good thing for our relationship, because you understand the demands that come with it and the lifestyle and sacrifices that need to be made.

"It actually makes a big difference, just that understanding that you have in your partner. People want to say I'm a WAG or something like that, and I'm like, 'No honey, if I'm a WAG then he's a HAB [husbands and boyfriends] because we're both athletes and we both support each other.'

"It's great," Prins continued. "I'm happy that I decided to date an athlete. Never say never because it turned out to be the best thing for us and our relationship - having a partner that understands your world and your life."

Another game changer for the couple has been their shared feelings about religion. "Faith is very important to both of us," said Simbine. "If you don't believe in something then there's something that's not right, so we believe a lot and our faith is really strong. We share our faith together and we pray together. We go through life together, so it's really great that we can share that and we can grow in it together."

Prins added: "Our faith is very important to us and it's also a big part of our relationship. We pray together and sharing that faith really brings us closer together. I wouldn't be where I am if it wasn't for God. Through the strength I receive from Him, I am able to do all I do.

"We both have wonderful praying mothers and I feel like there's little as powerful as your mother's prayers, so I'm honestly just so grateful for our parents. Faith really plays a big role in our family."

Going for gold

It's that faith that also plays a vital role in their careers, which require a grounded and calm demeanour for dealing with pressure. And there can be few greater pressures than the 100m final at the Olympic Games. But Simbine is ready. He finished fifth in the final at the Rio Games in 2016 and fourth at the most recent World Championships in Doha in 2019. Having consistently run under 10-second times every year since 2015, the Tokyo podium is calling.

"I'm feeling really great going into the Games," he said. "I'm really excited, it's a big opportunity for me. It's really exciting that I get to compete against the best in the world and knowing that I'm one of the best in the world and I'm fighting for one of the most coveted awards in sporting history.

"The 100m is something that everybody watches and that's really great. I feel like I'm in the best shape of my career. It's been a long time coming, but I really feel good in the shape that I'm in and the training that we've been doing."

The excitement doesn't end there. Simbine also has a real shot in the 4x100m relay along with the likes of teammates Gift Leotlela, Shaun Maswanganyi and Clarence Munyai, depending on who is selected to run. The South African quartet recently claimed victory at the World Athletics Relays in Poland, albeit in the absence of powerhouses such as the USA and Jamaica.

"The relay team, that's an exciting topic," said Simbine. "For us it's really great that we have this opportunity to do something great for our nation as a team. We are really prepared and we're heading into a camp soon where we're going to get everything right so that by the time we get to Tokyo, we are sharp and ready to do the job. I'm looking forward to the team running and performing really well and taking on the world."

Just how their own world might change if Simbine joins the elite group of 25 men to have claimed Olympic 100m gold since 1896 is tough to predict.

"I honestly don't know how it would change our life," said Prins. "It will probably open up a lot more doors and lead to a bunch of opportunities. We're always grateful for all the blessings we receive, but I don't know. What I do know is that it doesn't matter how many races he wins or what his world ranking is or what championship he wins, he always remains the humble, down-to-earth guy. That is one of the reasons I fell in love with him and why I keep growing more and more in love with him."

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