Bernadine Bezuidenhout: So much more than a survivor
Bernadine Bezuidenhout might have been dead. She had picked up her best friend, Carolyn Esterhuizen, at Cape Town airport late one night in 2015, and as they drove along the highway and under a bridge a large rock was dropped onto their car.
“I saw this massive boulder coming down,” Bezuidenhout told Cricbuzz. “It hit the side of my car and burst one of my front tyres. I’m from George, a small, safe town [430 kilometres east of Cape Town]. So I got out of the car and called my dad. Carolyn is a born-and-bred Capetonian. She said, ‘Get into your car! Look where we are!’
“Two seconds after I had locked the doors two men came and bashed the windows and tried to get us out. I got the car into first gear and drove on the rim of the wheel with the burst tyre. I don’t think anyone could understand the fear that put into me.”
But there was more: “About a week-and-a-half later, in the middle of the day and the middle of the city, a guy tried to get into my car and pull me out. I decided I couldn’t live like that.”
Bezuidenhout played her last significant match in South Africa in Bloemfontein on April 10, 2015. Her next noteworthy game was in Whangarei on November 25, 2016. Just 21 when she left South Africa, she had appeared in four ODIs and seven T20Is. She went to Christchurch, and has earned nine ODI and 13 T20I caps for New Zealand. How had she adjusted to her no longer new reality?
“Christchurch is the best city in the world. It’s a city but yet it’s in the country; a city without the crazy traffic. It’s very…,” she paused to settle on the right word: “…peaceful. If I didn’t move then I probably wouldn’t at this stage of my life, when I’m more settled. But when you’re 21 you’re brave. New Zealand is home. It’s an amazing, beautiful country. We’re a family of five-and-a-half million people.”
The start of our interview, which was conducted over Zoom during the women’s T20 World Cup in South Africa in February, coincided with the beginning of one of the scheduled power blackouts that have become an almost daily bane of South Africans’ lives. That has been the case, at some times more than others, since 2007 – eight years before Bezuidenhout left the country. Her exasperation, which she expressed once batteries on both ends of our electronic equation had kicked in, showed how Kiwi she had become: “I can’t get used to this loadshedding thing! I don’t know how you guys live like this!”
Even so, she is reminded she is not from New Zealand by her compatriots’ struggle to pronounce a surname common in South Africa. Similarly to Australians mangling Labuschagne – which has nothing to do with Shane – Kiwis tend to bastardise Bezuidenhout into Bezoodenhoot: “I don’t know how that zoo gets in there. It’s taken a lot of training. I’m like, ‘It’s ba-zay-den-hout; hout like boat.’ Then they get it.”
But that’s a small price to pay for uninterrupted electricity, exponentially less crime, and professional fairness: “We’re really blessed because there’s now equal match fees for women and men, in our domestic competitions as well. The girls are earning decent money playing cricket. NZC have gone out of their way to invest in the women’s game.”
And there the story of Bezuidenhout’s cricket career might have reached its conclusion. Or will do when she retires a few years and many more matches into the future, adding to a record that, at 29, features two list A centuries and 11 50s, half-a-dozen T20 half-centuries, and 115 matches as one of the slickest wicketkeepers in the game. But, as she discovered during a doctor’s appointment with Lesley Nicol, the New Zealand netball great who is now a sport and exercise health expert, her life wasn’t going to be that simple. She had veered towards death again.
“Lesley told me my bone density was like that of a 50-year-old woman. I was 26. I was in and out of hospital. She said if I accepted a contract and played another season, I wouldn’t make it through that season. My career would be done. I would never run again. I could die of a heart attack.”
Bezuidenhout had Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, or RED-S. “Years and years of overtraining and underfuelling, that is what causes RED-S. I was training for seven hours a day and eating maybe 1,000 calories a day.” She sounds like a prime candidate to contract the condition: “I love exercise, I love the gym, I’m a health fanatic, I’m a nutritionist by training, I’ve always been super-driven. In cricket you can’t always control the outcome of things, but being the fittest person in the room was something I could control.”
To do so Bezuidenhout put herself on road to oblivion: “I remember being in Australia five years ago, and I was so sick I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat, I weighed 53 kilogrammes. I’d get some food in and vomit it out in the changeroom. It got to the point where I couldn’t digest food. It would sit in my stomach and just come out. I was eating 400 or 500 calories a day. This went on for three or four years. A lot of outsiders don’t understand. It’s just, ‘Bernie, eat more.’ Well, it’s not that easy. ‘Just stop running.’ It’s not that easy. It’s more mental than anything else.” Her period was part of what she lost along the way: “I was amenorrheac for 10 years, from when I was 18.”
The US-based National Library of Medicine says “amenorrhea is…common in female athletes, particularly those participating in aesthetic sports (ballet, other dance genres, figure-skating, and gymnastics) and endurance sports (cross-country running)”. Given the extremes to which Bezuidenhout subjected her body, it was no surprise that she fell victim.
Women are often prepared for matches by men, who cannot know what it is to be female in any environment, much less an intensely physical environment. “We’ve got to have honest conversations with our trainers,” Bezuidenhout said. “They need to be aware how to train female athletes around the menstrual cycle, because scientifically most studies are done on male athletes, and we know we’re different.” Would having more female trainers help? “Yes, or just male trainers who are willing to learn. There’s not enough information out there.”
Along with her period, Bezuidenhout’s career was taken from her. She didn’t play from January 28, 2020 to November 20, 2022. That’s an absence of 1,027 days, or more than enough time to convince yourself and those who care about you – personally and professionally – that you have moved on from cricket. “Me and Lesley had a very tough, honest conversation. She said, ‘Bernie’, you’re probably never going to play professionally again.’ There was no expectation. So I feel really privileged and grateful and – this is going to sound really cheesy – I don’t take anything for granted. You never know when’s the last time you’re going to play or represent your country.”
Bezuidenhout had plenty of time to contemplate that as a reality, and much else. “I think back on those two-and-a-half years, nearly three years, that I took off from cricket because of my RED-S as probably the most challenging but yet the best time of my life. I reflected on my career as a cricketer and everything that I was doing with my life. It gave me a chance to look at things from a different perspective.
“As athletes we struggle with identity. ‘What are we going to do if we’re not playing?’ And, ‘If I’m not playing sport, who am I?’ I was always labelled this talented kid. There was always massive expectation. And when you reach international level and you’re ill and you’re still searching for more things in life, you think to yourself, ‘What more is there? What else can I do?'”
When what you think is everything is taken away from you, do you see what really matters? “One hundred percent. Then you realise there’s so much more to life. I love the game of cricket. I’ve been playing since I was seven. But then you dig deeper, and find that there’s so much more to me than just being an athlete. I needed to find out what that was away from sport. For 90% of my life it was just Bernadine the athlete.”
Where did Bernadine the former athlete’s journey of discovery lead her? To jail. “It gave me an awesome opportunity to work with youth in prison. That gave me perspective. I was like, ‘Holy crap. I have so much to be grateful for. While I’m travelling the world we have kids who are committing suicide, who don’t have anybody.’ Now cricket is a hobby. Yes, I get paid for what I do, which is awesome. But there’s such a good balance in my life.”
Bezuidenhout summarised her involvement with the inmates of Christchurch Men’s Prison and Rolleston Prison as “using sport and dance to connect with at-risk youth”. In some ways, she was made for the role. In others, not: “I’m a confident person, a pocket rocket. I’m also short [and, she didn’t say, slight], but I was a shoulder for these boys to lean on. I spent two years within the prisons, and it was in the youth unit where I found my purpose in life.
“It was amazing – these big gangster dudes, and they were so accepting. We had nothing in common, but if you go in there and you don’t judge people and you’re open and you just want to hear their stories, you find that these big men melt. A lot of them are actually big softies. They’re really good people. It’s always been in my heart to work with youth. Taking a break from sport gave me the opportunity to explore what I’d always wanted to do.”
That experience led Bezuidenhout to found the Epic Sports Project Charitable Trust in New Zealand and the Epic Foundation in South Africa. Both organisations work to give young people who have not been handed the best lot in life ways to get onto more solid paths. Bezuidenhout’s challenges were different, but she also needed rerouting.
While she was away from the game, Katey Martin retired. Wicketkeepers who last as long as Martin in international cricket – almost 19 years, in which she was behind the stumps 199 times – can seem irreplaceable. Keepers are, tactically, culturally and even geographically in the field, at the heart of their teams. To not see that familiar, even familial, figure crouching down with a last, loud quip before the bowler sets off is unsettling.
More so for the New Zealanders, who have been through Isabella Gaze, Jessica McFadyen, Maddy Green and Bezuidenhout in the 23 white-ball internationals they have played since Martin hung up her gloves and pads. What sets Bezuidenhout apart is that she is a top order batter, but she will know she is, as yet, far from irreplaceable. Somehow that doesn’t matter as much as it would have a few years ago.
“Now it’s about enjoying every moment that I get,” Bezuidenhout said. “And about being smart about training and fuelling. For instance today was optional training. I’m tired, so I rested. In the past I’d push myself and train. More is often less. We can’t perform if we’re not healthy. You matter. Your body is important. You know your body better than anybody else.”
And her body tells her, every month, the good news: “They said it would take me as long as I’d been amenorrheac – 10 years! – to get my period back. And it took me two! That’s a miracle in itself.”
Bernadine Bezuidenhout, woman, “proud auntie” of 19-month-old Sage, friend, Kiwi, Cantabrian, cricketer – in that order – might have been dead. Instead, with neither apology nor regret nor even the faintest tarnish from what has gone before, she is spectacularly alive. That rock is lucky it didn’t hit her.