Meet Simone Conley: The woman who ignited the Peter Shalulile revolution

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Simone Danielle Conley could have easily been many things sport! More like her 2016 Olympian sister Alyssa Conley, pictured below, who effortlessly traded her spikes in exchange for rugby boots in 2019 at the peak age of 27.

A fleeting look at her imposing resume suggests teenage Simone Conley was a multi-sport athlete. Not just an ordinary one, but par-excellence.

“I was quite sporty, I played everything I could, I swam, did athletics, did hockey, cross country, but my main sport which I did seriously where I played for South Africa was badminton.

“I was seeded number three [in badminton]. The top four girls and top four boys were supposed to go to the Commonwealth Games [2006 in Melbourne, Australia], but we ended up not going,” she tells FARPost. Such was her multi-potentiality.

At Under 13 and 18 level, she captained the district’s netball team as well as the Under 18 badminton team that won the SA Schools’ Championship.

Without a doubt, if her utmost desire had been playing sportsperson after Matric, she would have easily made the grade. After all, sport runs in the family. Mom was a netball player and dad was into athletics and squash although they never took their sporting very far during apartheid South Africa.

“When I finished matric I thought with women’s sport in South Africa you can’t call it a career, you don’t get a salary from it. You’ll never be able to make a living from it. Female athletes in every sphere struggle, so that’s why I went the academic route but in sport because I knew that if I wanted to earn a decent salary I’d have to work in male sport. And I had to work in one of the top three sports which is rugby, cricket or football,” she explains.

Gunning for close proximity to her much-loved sports, she opted for a degree in Sports Management at the University of Johannesburg in 2007.

But after completing that in 2009, she knew it would not be enough to get her working in the most popular mainstream sports. So, she enrolled for a BCom in Biokinetics in 2010, before taking up an MPhil in Biokinetics in 2012. The focus was injury prevention and physical conditioning in youth development football in South Africa.

It meant paying her dues in the game, volunteering for a combined four-year period at Farouk Khan’s Stars of Africa and the Transnet School of Excellence under Khabo Zondo.

“It took two meetings for me to understand what she wanted to do and I felt that at the school we didn’t have a person like her [skills] and I thought it would help us to expose our players to a biokineticist,” Zondo tells FARPost.

Of course, she tried her hand in rugby with the Golden Lions Rugby Union in 2012, but she found that rugby was a little congested.

“Every team has two or three bios. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why our rugby is doing well. I fit into football so much better,” says the Jo’burg-born bio.

Her ingenuity in football just could not go unnoticed after those two stints. “When we were assembling the technical team for Nedbank Ke Yona Team Search, I recommended her and obviously she was interviewed. I never told her though, she just got a call and she moved on from there,” Zondo says.

At the talent search programme, she met Owen Da Gama, who fell in love with her grind. The former Platinum Stars coach immediately drafted her into his Under 23 technical team, which they led to 2016 Olympics, the first time South Africa was qualifying in 16 years.

“When I met her at Ke Yona, I realised she understood the principles of sport science, how it can help football. I invited her to come and work in the Under 23 team. She helped us qualify,” Da Gama tells FARPost.

What made a great impression on the TS Galaxy mentor was when he selected Gift Motupa and was told he was out for three months. Upon insisting that the then Orlando Pirates striker be brought in for assessment, Conley weaved her magic on him.

“They were saying he can’t play, he can’t train and then Coach [Da Gama] insisted that they send him. I realised through my assessments as a bio that his hips were out of alignment and that’s what was causing the injury at the time,” says Conley.

“So, his bio-mechanics were basically out. I put his hips into alignment and I worked on his mindset because obviously the injury had a big impact on his mindset –psychologically. We worked on a bit of stability and easing him into training,” she recalls, adding that her job entails treating people with a variety of sport injuries using exercise therapy based on scientific evidence.

That alone showed Da Gama that she possessed the Midas touch as Motupa went on to score SA’s only goal at the Olympics during the 1-1 draw with Iraq, in Brazil’s huge seaside city.

“It showed me there was something special about her with regards to getting the best from players from a sports science specific situation,” Da Gama says.

While helping the Under 23 team qualify, she was also making sure her sister bounced back from a hip injury to qualify for Rio 2016.

In 2011, she had picked up a hip injury that ruled her out of the 100m and 200m events at the 2012 Olympics.

“That’s probably the best part of the Olympics for me that I got to share it with my sister after we both qualified in the same year,” her sprinter sister says, adding that they had “made a pact” to go to the Olympics together.

After Rio, her incredible work had secured her a job at Highlands Park. Coincidentally, Peter Shalulile’s first two seasons at the now defunct club had not been the most fruitful!

Quite interesting, just a year before the man moved to South Africa [in 2015], he got his first national team call up as a fullback.

Freedom Puriza, formerly with FC AK and Golden Arrows, was at the tail end of his international career and then Namibia coach Ricardo Manneti saw Shalulile as a potential direct replacement.

That was before the Windhoek-born ace showed that his predatory quality would be more beneficial at the tip of the spear of Brave Warriors’ attack.

As he made that much-needed transition, which continued in his first two seasons in South Africa, goals would just not come by. He only managed five goals in two seasons plagued by so many injuries.

“Someone just had to keep Peter [Shalulile] fit and he would get goals. When they [Da Gama and Conley] came Peter improved and he was on top of his game.

“Before that, he was always struggling with injuries, and he was not finishing seasons at Highlands Park. When he started working with Simone, things started to change,” Mamelodi Sundowns midfielder Mothobi Mvala, who previously shared an apartment with Shalulile, tells FARPost.

Ever modest and unassuming, Da Gama, who took over at Highlands Park in Shalulile’s third season, refuses to take any credit for the Tura Magic prodigy’s upturn in scoring form.

He singles out Conley for Shalu’s revolution. The 33-year-old biokineticist passes on the glory to the Namibian international.

Tapuwa Kapini, the former Highlands Park goalkeeper, however, recalls how he would often see Conley and Shalulile remain behind for extra training.

“At some point they were working on his balance and proprioception [being able to run or kick without looking at your feet],” Kapini tells FARPost.

Conley then adds that even when things started looking up, the 27-year-old forward just would not slow down.

“He always wanted to go the extra mile. Even when he started flourishing and scoring goals and becoming top goal scorer he never stopped, he wanted to keep going.

“Just the other day he messaged saying that his energy levels are low and he was asking what supplements to take and from which shop to buy them.

“He always wants to know what he can do extra,” says the TS Galaxy conditioning coach.

When Shalulile struggled with an ankle injury, she says, he went the extra mile doing rehab. “That’s the demeanor of that player, that’s why he is where he is today.”

Interestingly, Bafana Bafana midfielder, Mvala, adds that prior to her arrival, The Lions of the North were struggling with their fitness levels.

“It was in the middle of the season. She pushed us and managed us well, we did well. It definitely contributed to our success.

“We became the fittest team in the NFD, even in the PSL. Surprisingly, we were not running every day, we were just managed well,” Mvala tells FARPost.

At the end of her maiden season, her resourcefulness started paying dividends.

Highlands Park won the 2017/18 NFD term in spectacular fashion. They won 21 games from their 30 fixtures, a laudable run that broke the 18 games unbeaten streak by Thanda Royal Zulu the previous season. They also scored the most goals in the division with a total of 65, letting in just 13 goals.

It didn’t stop there! After gaining promotion, they became the first promoted team to finish in the top eight.

Shalulile, on the other hand, had his best season in 2019/20 after finishing as the League’s joint top scorer with 16 goals. Sundowns snapped him up with Mvala and he finished just a goal shy of top scorer Bradley Grobler’s 16.

And, for all that, Da Gama says ‘if quality were a person, quality would go by the name Simone Danielle Conley. In his own words, she “is quality personified”.

RELATED STORY: Peter Shalulile: The ‘defender’ that terrorises defences

By Mthokozisi Dube