Simon Lessing

Simon Lessing

Simon was born in Cape Town in 1971 and Table Mountain was the backdrop to his formative years. Having an ocean on either side of the city and a mountain in the middle means that people who grow up in Cape Town tend to get into outdoor sports at a very young age. Simon was no exception. With the support of his father and mother (who was a swim coach), Simon was out of the blocks early and into competitive sport.

Starting Young

By the end of his fifth year at school he had won provincial honors in swimming, sailing and biathlon and made his name as a cross-country runner. When Simon was 9, his family moved to Durban. Durban is a port city set on the tropical East Coast. It's warm all year round and close to both the towering Drakensberg mountain range and the wild, unspoiled beaches of Northern Natal and Mozambique.

When Simon was growing up, surfing and rugby were the two sports that white Durban considered to be cool. Simon resisted the pressure to switch to these sports and continued with his swimming, sailing, track, cross-country and duathlon. He also developed a real love of hiking and spent a lot of time in the Drakensberg Mountain range. South Africa was not a happy place in the eighties though. The iron fist of the Apartheid state was crashing down on all opposition, all TV and radio were state run, the press were subject to heavy censorship, schools and residential areas were segregated and major efforts were being made to indoctrinate white youth through school programs like cadets.

Since democracy has come to the country, it's very difficult to find any white South African who will admit to having supported Apartheid, but the truth is that the majority of white South Africans made no effort to look beyond the lies that were being fed to them.

Stood by His Convictions

The record shows that Simon was a brave exception. He took a lot of flak from some teachers and pupils for his stance but he never backed down and was prepared to take risky actions. On one occasion Simon and a friend removed all the duplicate books from the storeroom of the school library and gave them to a nearby black school that, until that day, had no library. Simon also made sporting sacrifices for his beliefs. He was, of course, unpopular with Afrikaner dominated selection committees and when, in 1987, a black pupil from a private church-run school was prevented from participating in the country's most prestigious schools athletics meeting, Simon was one of a few white pupils who pulled out in protest.

A Training Commitment at a Young Age

Simon's High School career was about a lot more than politics and refusing to play rugby. He spent an average of 3 hours a day training and excelled in swimming, duathlon, sailing, track and cross-country.His swim coach, David McCarney, was one of the top triathletes in South Africa at the time (1985) and he was the first to recognize Simon's multi-sport talent. He encouraged Simon to try one of the family orientated races that he organized at Kloof High School, and Simon borrowed a bicycle and gave it a go. He remembers that “At the age of 14, it was good to try something new and exciting, and I found that I adapted well to the multi-sport demands. On top of it I made some pocket money which is more than I can say of the other sports that I was involved in at the time.”

A Young Champion

By 1988 Simon was the South African triathlon champion and had been awarded national colors. He was also selected to represent South Africa in biathlon. However, he suffered a broken leg when a delivery van knocked him off his bike during a local triathlon and he had to forgo the opportunity to represent his country. Simon completed High School in November 1988. In those days all white men had to spend two years in the South African Defense Force (SADF) doing what was euphemistically called “National Service”. It actually amounted to occupying Namibia, supporting reactionary movements like Unita in Angola, Renamo in Mozambique and Inkatha in South Africa as well as suppressing dissent in townships and squatter settlements.

A Major Decision

Simon, as a long time supporter of the, by now illegal, End Conscription Campaign, made an easy decision to leave South Africa and try to fulfill his athletic dreams in Europe. Simon explains, “As an 18 year old it was a huge eye opener as I had never left isolated South Africa before. It was also an opportunity because at the time, South Africa was banned from competing in international sport and moving to England gave me the chance to pursue an international sporting career under the British Flag." Simon's mother was born in England and that entitled him to dual citizenship from an early age.

Simon quickly achieved major sporting success. To many of his South African friends and fans, it was somewhat strange to see him carrying the Union Jack as he broke the tape race after race, but they still supported him enthusiastically.

Simon's Career Highlights

  • 4 Time World Triathlon Champion 1992,1995,1996,1998
  • World Long Distance Triathlon Champion 1995 (4km-120km-32km)
  • 2 Time Vice World Champion 1993 and 1999
  • 3 Time European Triathlon Champion 1991,1992 and 1994
  • 4 Time French Iron Tour Champion 1994,1995,1996 and 1997
  • 2 Time Good Will Games Gold Medalist 1994,1998
  • Awarded the title of Member of the British Empire (M.B.E) By the Queen in 2000
  • Member of Team GB In the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games (9th)
  • Member of Team England In the Manchester Commonwealth Games (4th)
  • Inducted into the 2012 Boulder Sports Hall of Fame
  • Inducted into the 2014 International Triathlon Union inaugural Hall of Fame