Lifestyle MDIA2003_19 Media Sport Tues3.30 (2019)

When life chooses a different path

By Zoe Cox

Eloise Wellings training in her local town, the Sutherland Shire. Photo: Zoe Cox

In the moment that dual Olympian runner Eloise Wellings felt her whole world crash down around her, a chance encounter with poverty-stricken Ugandan runner, Julius Achon, taught Eloise that her athletic ability does not define her.

A breathless and exhausted Eloise Wellings strides back and forth on a cross-trainer inside the injury rehabilitation center in Portland. Puddles of sweat cover the gym floors beneath her. Desperate to succeed, Eloise has already been training for hours. Her bones and muscles ache. Eloise had just received the news that a major stress fracture will cause her to miss the Beijing Olympic Games. She had been training for the Olympics all her life and this is the third Olympics she will miss due to a stress fracture. Mentally, she is uncertain whether she has the resilience and motivation to endure another four years of training to fulfil her Olympic dream. She’s on the verge of giving up when suddenly she is face-to-face with Ugandan runner, Julius Achon. Uncertain at the time, 36-year-old Eloise now knows exactly why her injury had to happen.

“I just know that god had another plan.”

This chance encounter in Portland occurred 11 years ago. Since then the unlikely friendship between the two dissimilar Olympian runners, Julius Achon and Eloise Wellings has not only had an impact upon their individuals lives, but upon an entire Ugandan community. Alongside founding CEO, Caitlin Barrett, the two Olympians have used their running career as a platform to establish the ‘Love Mercy Foundation,’ a not-for-profit organisation. It aims to decrease poverty in Uganda by providing disadvantaged communities with clean drinking water, ongoing sources of food, internet service and medical and pharmaceutical support. “Communities are facing famine and food shortages,” Caitlin Barrett says. “For some people, our program is one of the main sources of food at the moment.”

The relationship between Julius and Eloise was a chance encounter neither of them expected. The two individuals endured diverse upbringings. Whilst Eloise was born into relative privilege, Julius was born into poverty. His parents had no money to send him to school, leaving Julius uneducated with little hope for a positive future. At the age of 11, Julius was abducted by the Lord Resistance Army (LRA), a group of rebels that were attempting to overthrow the Ugandan Government. The LRA would travel to communities and kidnap children, forcing them to be child soldiers. Julius ran for his life during an attack by the Ugandan air force and managed to escape.

The only way Julius Achon could escape the burden of poverty was to run. He ran to survive. Young Julius ran 72km to compete at his district running event with no footwear, food or water. Julius won the 800m and 3000m ‘so easily’, he told ABC news during an interview in 2016. His ability was recognised through an athletic scholarship to Kampala High School and his Olympic dreams would shortly become a reality. Julius ran for education, for his family and his community. “He always had this really burning desire to go back and help his community and really help them get back onto their feet after the war,” Eloise says.

‘Love Mercy’ initially began when Julius informed Eloise he had the livelihood of 11 Ugandan orphans in his own hands. Eloise and CEO, Caitlin Barrett offered him assistance in supporting not only these orphans, but in transforming large parts of the Ugandan community. The Kristina Medical Center is just one of the initiatives established by ‘Love Mercy.’ The center was named after Julius’ mother who was shot in the Ugandan war.

The foundation raises money via donations and charity events such as the ‘Sutherland 2 Surf,’ an 11km fun run held in the Sutherland Shire. This year the ‘Sutherland 2 Surf’ is raising money for clean drinking water in Uganda. Eloise loves to see 200 individuals running behind her in ‘Love Mercy’ singlets. As the foundations ambassador, Eloise using her running career and prominence in the media as a platform to seek donations and raise awareness. Caitlin values their partnership, “Eloise is quite visionary, she really thinks quite far ahead into the future… and I sort of have skills in bringing that vision to life,” she says. “We tend to compliment each other really well.”

Whilst Eloise helps ‘Love Mercy’ decrease poverty in Uganda, she is well aware that a comfortable upbringing doesn’t necessarily mean an easy track to the finish line. Both Julius and Eloise endured their own individual hardships. At 16, Eloise qualified for her first Olympics. Soon after, the news that she couldn’t compete due to a stress fracture, led her whole world to crash down around her. Eloise has encountered 11 stress fractures during her career, resulting in her withdrawal of three Olympic Games. 20 years since her first injury, Eloise now embraces a different mindset, attributing her injuries to her success and ongoing career. She believes her career has been stretched out due to the physical obstacles she’s overcome, as she learnt the value of rest, patience and resilience. Eloise is thankful, “it [the injuries] has given me the hunger to keep going and to persevere and see what I can do later in my career,” Eloise says.

Whilst Eloise confronted many physical barriers during her career, she also battled the burden of mental illness, culminating from the pressures of being a female professional athlete. As a teenager, Eloise was influenced by societies message to young girls that thinner is better, leading her to battle an eating disorder for six years. Due to the perfectionist nature of running, Eloise believed weight has an impact on performance and was influenced by unrealistic expectations placed upon her. Eloise had to change her mentality, “in some ways, the lighter you are, the faster you run; but it’s only for a very short time, till you start to begin to break down,” Eloise says.

Coinciding with her ‘Love Mercy’ initiatives, Eloise works alongside positive psychology speaker, Rory Darkins delivering motivational talks to young athletes across Australian. The duo has talked to over 50 schools, sharing Eloise and Julius’ hardships as an example of resilience and determination. “It [positive psychology] is really just helping people hear the truth inside of them and cancel out that kind of negative inner critic that we all kind of have,” Rory Darkins says.

“You are not defined by your performance…your self worth isn’t in how you are going in your sport.”

Eloise Wellings smiling next to her favourite local coffee shop. Photo: Zoe Cox

Eloise is currently training to move up to the marathon distance, aiming to compete in London, New York and the next Olympic Games. However, Eloise’s focus has now shifted. Becoming a mother, both to the Ugandan community and to her daughter, Indi, has changed the way Eloise approaches running. She encourages her daughter to nurture through competitiveness, and enjoy sport, rather than be too serious. Rory Darkins highlights the importance of not letting sport define you, “Eloise’s example is a great illustration in that she actually runs to make a difference in communities in Uganda and she runs to be a role model to her daughter… that motivation beyond yourself is really powerful,” he says.

Eloise and Julius’ friendship emphasises the powerful connections that sport can facilitate. Their unlikely encounter altered Eloise’s perspective on not only her situation, but on life itself. Eloise is thankful, “It’s a missing piece that I didn’t expect,” Eloise says.

“I didn’t even know where Uganda was on the map before I met Julius.”

Eloise and Rory strive to deliver the message to young people across Australia that performance doesn’t define you. “That’s the essence of sport,” Rory says.

“How it can be a way for us to become our best selves rather than just be the best player we can be.”

To access the story behind the story, click the link below