Ugandan Olympian’s generous heart “humbled me”, says Olympic and Commonwealth Games runner Eloise Wellings
Seeing the suffering of Ugandan villagers after 25 years of civil war, floods and droughts, Sydney based distance runner Eloise Wellings and her photographer husband Jony felt they had to "do something", a burden that led to a new medical clinic, hospital, and empowerment programs in Northern Uganda.
"I stumbled into [humanitarian work] really," says Eloise, who finished fifth in the women's 5000m at her third Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. At the 2010 Commonwealth Games, she finished fifth and sixth in the 5k and 10k runs.
Devastated by the third stress fracture of her career right before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Eloise met Ugandan dual-Olympian Julius Achon in Oregon, and his story gave her a fresh perspective on her injuries. "If I told you my story," he said, "your foot problem will become very small."
Forced to be child soldier at age 12 by Joseph Kony's rebel army, Julius explains in a chilling online video: "If you don't go, you have to be killed. If you go, you survive."
Three months later, Julius was among six who escaped during a government aerial bombing attack, unlike nine friends who were killed by government forces and the rebels. He then trained himself how to run, became the first Ugandan to become World Junior 1500m Champion in 1994 and ultimately captained Uganda's Olympic team in Atlanta and Sydney.
“I was completely moved by what he’d overcome to be an Olympian”"I was completely moved by what he'd overcome to be an Olympian," Eloise explained to Good Weekend magazine in 2010. "It humbled me that he was supporting 11 orphans from his village. I have never met anyone with a softer heart."
In 2009, Eloise and Jony attended Julius' wedding at his home village, a visit that established both an enduring friendship and the Love Mercy Foundation.
"The friendship we have developed is like we were born from the same mother but separated from birth. When I'm with Eloise, she helps me forget my pain. My nightmares suddenly stopped. She is the first white person to be my friend and come to my village," Julius told Good Weekend.
They trained together in Australia and Eloise says his pacing and advice "pretty much secured" her qualification for the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games. Among his sayings to her are "you are fearless", and "just imagine you are being abducted, you are losing your family from poverty... now run like you are blessed."
At age 16, that sense of blessing was missing for Eloise when her battle with anorexia and osteoporosis led to a devastating stress fracture only two weeks after qualifying for the Sydney Olympics.
"[Anorexia] is rife through middle distance running... It's such a perfectionist sport and there's a lot of pressure on young girls to be perfect," Eloise told Network Ten in 2012.
Depressed and having shut out all her friends, Eloise recalls crying in the school yard when a new girl named Lisa sat beside her.
"She said, 'I've been praying for you and I've got some people at my church praying for you. I just want you to know that God knows what you're going through and He loves you. I'd really love for you to come visit my church and see what it's all about.'
"That was encouraging for me. I had grown up in a Catholic family, so I knew about God but I did not know God (personally). I had this warped sense that God was this big being up in the sky who was punishing me for something I had done wrong."
At Lisa's church, Eloise remembers, "I heard about Jesus, that He wanted a relationship with me and He cared about the intricate details of my life."
She recalls having "this revelation that I'm not as far from God as I think I am, and all I had to do was receive His grace and love."
At that point, Eloise says, "I asked Jesus to come into my life", meaning that she asked for Jesus to forgive her sins and she gave control of her life to Him.
However, further Olympic heartache was to follow. Injuries cut her from the Athens and Beijing Olympic shadow squads, but Eloise says it has been God's provision that brought her through these setbacks.
By "reading the truths in the Bible about God having a good plan for your life, no matter what you're going through... [I can] stay strong. [I keep] asking God for that strength [to go on], instead of trying to find it in my own strength," Eloise shared with the Wesley Impact TV show in July 2014.
Besides her humanitarian work, Eloise is mum to one-year-old daughter India, a motivational speaker at schools and corporate events, and a training mentor for young athletes.
Reflecting on her career, Eloise says, "Because I've been able to come back from so many injuries, I know that the Lord (Jesus Christ) has been with me right the way through.
"I am just trusting God in everything and I'm trying to not lean on my own understanding," she adds in reference to Proverbs chapter 3, verse 5.
Follow Eloise at eloisewellings.com.au or on Twitter @elzywellings