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Breaking the ice: Cape Town super mum’s quest for Olympic glory

Published Sep 19, 2021

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Meet the Cape Town mother who refuses to quit or take no for an answer and who quite simply does not understand the term 'impossible'.

For the past 15 years, Suzette Samuels from Summer Greens in Milnerton has hustled, pumped nearly every cent she has into her two children Matthew and Abigail's sporting dreams. The siblings are professional figure skaters, and competing is costly.

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But Samuels said she truly believed they were destined for greatness.

Matthew, 23, is the current South African senior men's champion, a title he's earned four times. He is currently in Europe, trying to secure qualification for next year's Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. Abigail, 20, is gearing up for the upcoming inter-provincial championships. Those take place October 10-13.

"They are talented, honestly. And hard working. And I may be a little biased, but their results have shown it over the years," she bragged. "Matthew has gone to international competitions every year since 2016 because he qualified for those events. He's been to South Korea, France, the Philippines, Poland, Estonia, Canada, Finland and Germany."

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Describing the challenging journey, an emotional Samuel’s said: "It was never easy. We've had challenges through the years. Before 2016, there were a few international competitions we couldn't afford to go to, even though Matthew and Abigail both qualified."

Samuels has had to box clever to bankroll her children’s respective competitive campaigns. From hosting karaokes and langarm dance nights to selling braai plates, Samuels has done what she could to raise money to keep her children in the game.

"Over the years, I've always had the support of the community. I was never alone, especially in my office. When I have a raffle, it gets filled."

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Samuels listed some of the figure skating expenses: "Patch fees – those are just to step onto the ice. It is R50 a patch for one to two hours. It's three patches a day per child. So for me, it is R300 a day. They skate six days a week. Coaching fees vary. Just for this month, for example, it is about R7000. Only three of those lessons were for Abi. The rest is what I put in for Matthew, just to get him prepared for international competition."

Samuels said people often refer to her as "the Oracle from the Matrix". "I pull everything together," she laughed. "It's been difficult during Covid. People don't have money at this time. People need to think about themselves and supporting their own kids. Still, we managed to raise over R20 000 on BackaBuddy for Matthew. We've been truly blessed."

Ice skating is the oldest Winter Olympic sport, having debuted at the London Games in 1908. It is also one of the world's most expensive.

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While the South African Olympic Committee, Sascoc, may be the umbrella body overseeing national figure skating, its chief executive Ravi Govender said his organisation doesn't give any money directly towards the sport. And put that responsibility entirely on the shoulders of the South African Figure Association (SAFSA).

"All federations have access to national lottery funding," he said. "In fact, Sascoc has facilitated a training programme, where we have invited all our members to be briefed by the NOC (National Olympic Committee) about applying for annual funding."

Dawn van der Riet, chairperson of the South African Figure Skating Association's Western Province office, said: "The application for funding from Sascoc for Olympic hopefuls was made three years ago. At the time of applications, our national selection committee chose another male skater for this funding, and Matthew lost out, so (he) got nothing. He has proven to be much better than this other skater now, so (he was) chosen to participate in this (Olympic) qualifier (in Germany)."

Van der Riet explained that the money for Olympic assistance was "very slow coming in", saying "the athlete has to front the spend and then submit proof of payment before being refunded, which makes it very difficult. Sascoc funding is only channelled via our headquarters to the Province."

Van der Riet also said her organisation received funding from the Western Cape Department of Sport. "It is specific when applied for. It is spent mainly on development and capacity building. Overall, I think there should be more funding to Figure Skating to enable more participants to enjoy the sport, which is not only beautiful to watch but athletically challenging with difficult triple and quad revolution jumps being performed in competition."

Where ice skating's governing bodies have come up short in terms of funding Matthew and Abigail's careers, their mom has not just done the bulk of the heavy lifting, she's plunged herself into debt to keep her children in the sport they both love so much.

"I'm still paying loans from 2016," Samuel’s laughed nervously. "Because I believe in these kids so much because of their work ethic and what they put into their performances, I feel it is worth even putting myself in debt. And I have over the years. I know what it is to take out a second bond, to call up Dialdirect and just take out a loan, and make these things possible for my kids.

“Because if others are not able to help and funding is not coming in, and I don't get sponsors, I still do what is necessary to send them (to competitions). I always said to the kids - you do what you need to do, and I will make sure you get to where you need to be. And I have never, ever been disappointed."

The Samuels children are full of praise for their mum's incredible commitment. "My mom has helped me through the highs and lows of the sport," said Abigail. "I don't think I would have got this far, and I don't think I would have kept going if it wasn't for her support. Whatever I decide, she would back me 100 percent. She is also my biggest motivator."

"My mother has been one of the biggest influencers in my sporting career," boasted Matthew. "She's been with me every step of the way, through the most difficult and most intense times of my career to the happiest and highest points."

"I don't have a lot of emotional responses to skating. I always try to stay calm and stay in the zone. But if you ever want to see how I really feel inside, just take a look at my mom. She's always crying in the stands or cheering. She is so invested in my career. It is the best thing ever. The type of support she gives keeps me going."

Recounting the most challenging moments, Samuel’s said: "I've had so many lows. When your kids have those drops (in performances), and they lose, and when they feel that everyone has given up on them, those were the hardest times for me. But I showed them: I didn't give up on you. And just got them to push through. Like when your body goes through changes when you have an injury, when money is the problem. Helping my kids through all of that was hard."

Matthew embarks on a daunting journey next week. Competing at the Nebelhorn Olympic Qualifiers in Germany. Succeed there, and he'll be on his way to next year's Beijing Games. If that does indeed become a reality, Suzette said she'll be the happiest mother on planet earth.

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