eloise wellings - Australian athlete and founder of love mercy foundation

River Bennett (Photography River Bennett)

Running for her homeland Australia in the Olympics, she dreams of it. Determination, she can't live without it. Running for a cause greater than herself, an absolutle must. 

You know her: Elosie Wellings. Wife to Wedding Photographer and Film Maker Jono, Mother to India, Professional Athlete and Founder of Love Mercy Foundation.

We celebrated her as she passed the finishing line a few days ago at the Zatopek Olympic Trials in Melbourne and cheered when she got the news she had offically qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Her life as a professional athlete hasn't always come easy, and yet somehow in the mix she has found purpose and attached it to her running.

She is a born leader full of passion and vision and when she speaks you can't help but want to be part of whatever it is she is doing. She has a wicked sense of humor and a huge heart for humanity and dedicates her life to seeing others succeed. This is the story of Eloise Wellings and what dreams are made of.

When I was a little girl . . . 

I used to hang out in my room mocking up an Olympic podium using phone books and encyclopedias. I'd put the national anthem on - a live version that I'd taped from the TV of Kieran Perkins' Olympic gold medal ceremony in Atlanta 1996 - and I'd just go for it, sing my lungs out! It was great because at the end of the anthem the crowd on the TV go wild and you could also hear my family cheering in our lounge room in the background - albeit for Kieran, but I pretended it was for me. The tape would finish and then I'd go again. I was bizarrely certain from about age 10yrs. that one day I was going to make it to the Olympics. With every project at school, I'd choose to do the Olympics. I was obsessed with the dream and the idea of reaching the pinnacle of sport. I wouldn't play games in the neighbourhood with the other kids unless they were named after the Olympics. It had to be the ‘Hop-Scotch OLYMPICS', the ‘Trampoline OLYMPICS', the ‘Knock and Run OLYMPICS'...

My career as a professional athlete started when . . .

I won the Knock and Run OLYMPICS. 

But really, it was a natural progression from making the World Junior team in Annecy, France in 1998. I was 15 yrs. old and it was my first trip overseas for running. I sold raffle tickets in the neighbourhood, and my Running Club had a Trivia night to pay for the trip. I made the final and came 11th. It was a great experience. After that trip, I met my coach and manager of the past 16 years, Nic Bideau, and I got my first shoe company sponsor. It was wild, I got boxes and boxes of clothes and shoes every day for a week. I would sprint home from the bus stop after school like it was Christmas. Both my brothers and my sister wore the same size active wear and shoes as me at the time so it was a dream for them too. 

Athletics doesn't get much exposure as a sport in Australia. It's kind of overshadowed by swimming and the football codes so there aren't a lot of sponsorship dollars and I absolutely couldn't have had the career I've had so far without Jony having a thriving photography business, as well as the support of our family and my two main sponsors 2XU and RunLab. Jony and I resolved fairly early on that we weren't in it for the money, but more for the experience, the challenge and the journey in it together, for the love of it. I'm grateful to have a crazy supportive husband who gets the idea of just going after what you're good at, and what you love to do, despite what it might cost you in dollars. We believe if you do what you love it might cost you money, but if you don't, it will probably cost you happiness.

The most challenging part of my job is . . . 

Injuries. In my career I've had 11 stress fractures - three of which kept me from making 3 Olympic teams after I'd been picked in the 'shadow team' and measured for the uniform. 

I haven't had a stress fracture in 5 years. Before that, it was at least one a year for 10 years. I call those my refining years - The Wilderness years. There were the odd good patches during those years where I'd get a break and see some light - the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne 2006 for example, where everything came together. I ran out of my skin and came 4th in the 5,000m, and the Commonwealth Games in Dehli in 2010. But for those 10 or so years during my 20's it was a roller-coaster ride of loving and hating running, and loving and hating my body for failing me. Loving it when things were going well, but hating it when I got injured. That’s when I wanted to quit. I had a guy say to me once that if I was a horse they would have shot me by now! Brutal. The disappointment of missing an Olympics was probably the hardest part. A lot of times I questioned whether running was actually what I was meant to be doing with my life. Especially when I got injured after my third attempt - this was before the Beijing Olympics. This was the injury that eventually took me to meet Julius Achon. When I got injured that time I questioned everything - my Olympic Dream, and I questioned what God was doing. I questioned if He had really actually planted that dream in me or if it was just me all along. It really shook me. Looking back now, and I realise what He was doing at that time even though I was doubting His plan. It humbles me. 

I finally ran at the Olympics in London 2012 in the 10,000m and 5,000m. 

In the lead-up to London, the biggest challenge was to actually celebrate and recognise that things were going great and just believe for good things ahead. I was so used to being disappointed and things going wrong in the lead-up to achieve this big dream that I feared celebrating that I'd made it just in case it didn't go to plan again. I guess it was self-preservation, but it was also self-sabotage. I was about two months out from race day, not sleeping much, super uptight and I kept breaking down and crying at training because of this crippling fear that things would go wrong. My husband called me out on it. He challenged me with, “Hey, you haven't worked your butt off, and been dreaming about this moment for the last 19 years only to be stressed about it... Just release your grip on it, enjoy it and believe that this is your time and it's going to be GREAT.” 

So I did. And it was. 

The most rewarding part of my job is . . .  

When I totally nail a race physically and mentally. Sometimes the result isn't even a factor. I actually consider the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne where I placed 4th, one of my best ever races. 4th is obviously considered the hardest place to swallow because there's no prize! But when I crossed the line after this race, I was 0.6 seconds behind the Kenyan, so close to getting the bronze medal, but I knew that there was nothing else I could have done in that race to go any faster. And I had to celebrate that. After the race I walked down the tunnel under the track and the first person waiting for me was my coach, Nic - he had tears in his eyes. That was pretty special. Anyone who knows Nic, knows he doesn’t cry easily - I could tell he was proud and that I'd done good. 

There's nothing worse than finishing a race and thinking – ‘I could've gone harder’, or ‘I could've placed higher if I had done this, or made that move earlier.’  I never thought these things about that race. I'd laid everything out on the track and used everything I had physically and mentally and that was enough so I walked away satisfied. 

I take care of my body by . . . 

Nurturing it. I spent a lot of years, especially in my 20's, thrashing my body to try and get it to do what I wanted it to do. I was so desperate to achieve big things in running that I wasn't mindful about how my body was feeling, I'd just do the training anyway. I had this idea that if you want to be a good athlete you have to go as hard as you can all the time. I did eventually learn that if you want to get your body to do something great then you need to love on it and listen to it and not just thrash it into submission, because it usually doesn't end well. There's no doubt I have to train hard to get where I want to be but it has to be measured and I need wisdom to help me make good, logical decisions. These learning experiences are probably my biggest asset as an athlete these days. 

A full week of training is about 135km of running over 6 days. I run twice on most of those days and do a gym lifting session 3 times a week. Every day is different. Typically, my hard days are Tuesday and Friday, moderate days are Thursday and Sunday and then the others are just easy running, recovery days. I'll still run up to 20km on those easy days, but at a really cruisy pace with my training partners. Then I have a rest day - which I've learned to really love. 

My diet is usually pretty clean, I think of it as eating for training and good recovery. Slow release carbs, low fat protein, good fats, loads of vitamins and minerals in fresh food and not much refined sugar or processed stuff. I do have a major eat fest after every race, I allow myself 24 hours to eat whatever I want after racing. The first thing I ate after racing in London back in the Olympic village food hall was a GIANT slab of red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting. I'd walked past those freshly baked cakes everyday for ten days beforehand so I knew what I was after. I hadn't eaten refined sugar in months. I was on a major sugar high. It was a dream. Then I went and joined the line at Maccas! 

I train and work hard because . . .

I'm committed to using running to stand alongside the people that we've had the opportunity to help impact in Northern Uganda. 

Before 2008, I didn't even know where Uganda was on the map of the world. Until I met Julius Achon. I met him in Portland when I was trying to rehab yet another stress fracture and I was trying to force my way back to making the Beijing Olympics. On our first introduction, Julius and I became immediate great friends – crazy! Julius ran 72km bare foot to get to his district athletics because he couldn't afford the bus fare from his village -whilst I ran the 400m home from the bus stop to boxes and boxes of clothes and shoes from my first sponsor.  But despite our different upbringings, we have the same sense of humour, same love for running and we also had a connection because we both have a faith in Jesus. 

At the time of meeting Julius, I was really negative about my situation, potentially missing a third Olympics due to injury and I was super discouraged. Then Julius told me all about his story. He was born into poverty and war in Northern Uganda, he was captured by the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) at aged 12yrs and forced to be a child soldier. He was held captive at a rebel camp for 3 months with 14 other boys. One day he saw his chance to escape when a government plane flew over the rebel camp - he ran for his life with the 14 other boys. The government plane mistook them to be rebels and started shooting. Nine of the boys were shot and 6 of them survived - one of them was Julius. He made the 300km back to his village. He was desperate to get an education, but his parents couldn't afford the school fees. So he started running so that he could get a scholarship to school. He worked hard and became a great runner and got that free education at high school in Kampala. Winning every race he entered, he was then talent-scouted and invited to go to college on a running scholarship in the US. Julius went on to compete at 2 Olympic Games - Atlanta in 1996, and Sydney in 2000. This is so crazy because I actually remember watching and cheering for him at the Sydney Olympics,  having no idea about his story until I met him 8 years later when our worlds connected. When I met Julius he told me about the 11 orphans he’d found sleeping underneath a bus whilst he was on a visit home in the height of the war in 2003. He took them to his Mum and Dad and asked them if they would take care of them if he went back to the U.S. and sent money home to support them. He had been working and running in the US and sending most of his wage home to care for his family and the orphans. 

I was so moved by his story. Something shifted inside me and all of a sudden my foot injury and missing another Olympics seemed insignificant compared to the burden that Julius had been carrying. I didn't end up making the Olympics in Beijing but that trip to Portland as a last ditch effort to try pretty much changed my life because I had met Julius.

A few months later Jony and I and my parents-in-law travelled to Uganda and celebrated Julius and Grace’s wedding. We met all of his family, and the orphans, and went to his village and saw the sheer devastating effects that 25 years of civil war had left. But even on that very first trip, when it was really clear people were still suffering horribly, their joy and their strength remained. It's what moves me about Ugandan people the most. Their resilience, their strength and their joy despite their lack. 

We flew home from that first trip with a strong resolve to start a foundation in Australia, except I had no idea how to start a charity, not even the slightest clue. Then I met Caitlin Barrett who was working as a PA for my brother Ben at the time. She had been studying International Development - which is basically a degree in the Relief of Poverty in Developing Countries - PERFECT!  I told her all about Julius and the orphans and his community and that we'd just got back from Uganda, and when I finished talking she said to me, 'CAN I PLEASE HELP YOU?'. Caity took care of all of the administration and governance side of setting up an NGO, she volunteered, full-time for the first two years, and now she is the CEO of Love Mercy. 

Our first goal for Love Mercy, at the very least, was to get all of the orphans sponsored by individual Australian families. This happened in the first week. I called Julius and told him of the great support from home and asked him what else he thought we could do to help. He said that since we had left Uganda that first trip, 11 people in his village had died from famine. So Caity came up with our ‘Cents for Seeds’ program - a sustainable micro-loan, farming program we would run primarily with women. It costs $30 to sponsor a woman through Cents for Seeds. The woman receives a loan of 30kg. of seeds, and out of that she usually harvests an average of 150kg. of food. With her harvest, she can use it to feed her family, and then also sell some it and use that money to buy other foods, pay for school fees, medical necessities and other household items. At the end of the season the woman returns her 30kg. loan so that we can pass it on to another woman and family in need. All of the women in Cents for Seeds are educated by a trained agriculturalist on how to best farm their chosen crop, be it rice, beans or sesame. The education sessions take place on the distribution day at the start of the rainy season and the women also receive a farming tool to start. 

We have high hopes for Cents for Seeds. It's actually breaking the cycle of poverty in entire families, which means the whole community benefits. This year we ran the program with 1,300 women from 6 different villages, next year our goal is 5,000 women and by 2020, our goal is to have 20,000 women thriving through Cents For Seeds.

Our recent LOVE MERCY trip to Uganda . . .

We laughed and cried a lot! There were 9 of us on our team, and 4 of those had not been to Africa before so it was a life-changing experience for them. 

On the trip we visited 200 of our Cents for Seeds ladies, and shot footage and conducted interviews for a documentary we are making on the program and the impact that it is having on the women and their families.

We ran and cheered at the ‘Julius Achon Cross Country Day’, an inspiring day of running races for 3,000 school kids in the North of Uganda. It was an epic day of cheering for kids running their hearts out for prizes like a mattress, bed sheets and blankets. This day was mind-blowing for me, the potential that mass participation sport can have on development with the opportunities to empower and educate. 

We visited the Kristina Health Clinic, and Jim Fee Memorial Ward that Love Mercy helped to build, and got to meet and encourage the new staff. 

We then sat down with our Ugandan staff for two days of meetings to encourage one another and, together, to cast the vision and direction of Love Mercy for the next 5 years. It was a blessed trip. 

My dream for Love Mercy this CHRISTMAS is . . . 

Is to raise enough money to empower 5000 women for the Cents for Seeds Program next year.

When I became a mother I . . .

Wrote a list of the kind of mum I wanted to be. And then acknowledged at the end, that because of my humanness, almost none of it was possible to sustain without wisdom and help from God. 

Our daughter, India  . . .

Is beautiful, funny, cheeky, kind, neat, gentle, energetic, emotionally intelligent, thoughtful, determined and sensitive. 

I always want her to know . . .

That she is LOVED. 

Balancing career and motherhood is . . .

 Crazy sometimes! but I wouldn't have it any other way. Jony and Indi come first, then running. I think I'm a better mum because of running, it helps clear my head, it gives me an independence and personal goals outside of being a mum. And then on the other hand, I think becoming a mum has given my running career a fresh season. Indi has taught me to slow down and be more mindful, less rushed and more patient.

This Christmas our family will . . . 

Have a space big enough for a Christmas tree! I love Christmas Carols, so these are on repeat all day, everyday, until Jony says that it's over - usually around December 31st. 

Jony and I are excited for this Christmas because Indi is just old enough now to understand what it means. I have LOVED watching her experience the wonder of Christmas. We'll spend Christmas and Boxing Day lunch with each side of our families and hang out. I love Christmas, it's such a great time to love on people that you love. 

Top 5 songs on your playlist? 

This week it's:

O' Holy Night

Hello - Adele

Water Under the Bridge- Adele

Runnin' - Beyonce

Valerie - Amy Winehouse

Favourite cheat meal? 

Pizza and messina icecream. 

Favourite country to run in? 

Uganda. 

My advice to other women working hard to pursue their dream would be. . . 

Keep it light, don't take yourself too seriously. Enjoy the journey. Don't grip on too tight. Keep a good work/life/fun/dance/laugh balance. Work hard and be organised. Create an inspiring place in which to work or think. Stay close to people who impart wisdom and experience. And encouragement!

 

For more info on Eloise Wellings head to:

@elzywellings

 

For more infor on Love Mercy Foundation head to:

lovemercyfoundation.org 

@lovemercyfoundation