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Alyssa's barefoot journey to Rio

When Johannesburg primary school pupil Alyssa Conley was making a name for herself by outrunning the boys barefooted, she never dreamt it would transform her life to an athletics career at the highest level.

But this year the 25-year-old University of Johannesburg Club member stood in the green and gold colours of South Africa, competing on the world's greatest stage at the Rio Olympics.

It was a far cry from the hard Highveld grounds of the Wilhelmina Hoskins and Meredale primary schools, where Conley first discovered her running talent.

Such was her impact that she had to run against the boys and had no problems breaking the tape first.

"My earliest memories are running the boys' leg in the mixed relays and beating them," said Conley.

"I had so much fun beating the guys and they just couldn't understand how I was that quick."

In those early days, she ran without spikes, which led to her teachers nicknaming her Zola Budd after South Africa's famous runner who made barefoot running fashionable in the early eighties.

Since then Conley has become the country's top women's sprinter, winning the national 100 and 200m titles this year and being named the Gauteng Sportswoman of the Year for her achievements.

Conley said she was "overwhelmed with joy" at the honour, especially given the strength of the competition in Gauteng.

"It is only by the grace of God that I'm back on the track injury-free and that I've had such a great year.

"This recognition is definitely a step up that ladder. Gauteng is such a huge sporting province and to be named Sportswomen of the Year is a big honour."

Conley, who lives in Meredale, attended Mondeor High before doing a sports psychology degree at UJ, followed by an honours in sports management. She now works for Nike Africa as a product specialist.

Her target is now to run the 100m dash in under 11 seconds and to make the finals at next year's world champs in London.

She set personal bests this year in the 100 (11.23) and 200m (22.84) sprints, the latter effort earning her a silver at the African Championships in Durban.

"In the long term, I want to medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2020 Olympics.

"I also want to break the 200m national record," said Conley, referring to the mark of 22.06 set by Evette de Klerk in 1989.

Conley's focus is purely on athletics but she is a versatile athlete, having played badminton at national and netball at regional level.

She said she spent time off with family and friends, while a post as a Sunday school teacher allowed her to give back to the community.

"But I love speed, so I also take a big interest in fast cars, as well as the old classics."

Conley said her family and friends provided a strong support base.

"They have all played a role in inspiring me to keep chasing my dreams and goals."

She said her sister, Simone, the biokineticist for the SA U23 men's soccer team, was her role model.

"She has led the way in showing me how to work hard for my dreams and goals."

Having started at UJ in 2008, Conley said the varsity staff were influential in her development.

University of Johannesburg sprinter and Rio Olympian Alyssa Conley was recognised for her achievements by being named the Gauteng Sportswoman of the Year. Photo: Supplied

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