When Eloise Wellings runs she often has much more on her mind than best times or even Olympic glory.
Not only is she an elite long-distance runner, representing Australia in the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, she’s also a founding director of the Love Mercy Foundation, which helps northern Ugandans live empowered lives.
Eloise’s dream of Olympic glory began when she was young.
At the age of six, she held her age group shot put record at Little Athletics, but at age 10 she began to show her potential as a long-distance runner.
Watching the Barcelona Olympics, Eloise realised she wanted to compete for Australia one day.
The road to the Olympics was a rocky one. Eloise qualified for the 2000 Sydney Olympics and thought she’d achieved her dream to compete for her country – in front of a home crowd, no less. But a stress fracture meant a devastated Eloise had to pull out of the Olympic team.
Eloise began to think God was using injuries to punish her because she had done something wrong and started looking for answers.
“I think a pinnacle moment was going to church with a school friend and hearing the Gospel and understanding grace,” she said.
“I guess a light bulb just went on, and I started to understand God’s love for me.”
Eloise also suffered from an eating disorder early in her running career.
“It’s a mental illness,” she said.
“It was six years of one step forward, two steps back and gradually beginning to change all those habits and becoming stronger and stronger and more self-aware. I was finally, thankfully, able to get through it and never look back.”
This was a pivotal moment in her life, where she realised she had been running for the wrong reasons. Eloise chose to follow Jesus.
“It turned everything on its head,” she said.
“I was running for approval, and had a perfectionist view and almost being a slave to the sport.”
“Once I found Jesus I was free to use the gifts He had given me and it didn’t matter if I succeeded or not.”
However, Eloise wasn’t one to give up on her dreams. She finished fourth in the 5000m at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, and sixth in the 10,000m at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games.
Although persistent injuries meant she missed out on the Athens and Beijing Olympics, her lifelong dream finally came true in 2012, when she ran the 5000m and 10,000m track events at the 2012 London Games.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Eloise was the highest-placed Australian athlete in the history of the 10,000m, finishing tenth with a personal best time. She also placed ninth in the 5000m.
Eloise continues to represent Australia, most recently at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
While proud of her athletic achievements, it was a chance meeting 10 years ago that was to change the course of Eloise’s life – and the lives of many others.
In 2008, while recovering from another injury, Eloise attended a running camp in the United States. It was there she met Ugandan dual Olympian Julius Achon.
Julius told Eloise about his dream of restoring his village in Northern Uganda, which had been destroyed after decades of civil war. Julius had been forced to become a child soldier at the age of 12, but had managed to escape.
As an adult, he dedicated his life to helping children affected by Africa’s longest-running war. Many were without food, clothing, housing or education. Some children Julius met couldn’t even remember their names.
Eloise was moved by Julius’s experiences and went to Uganda to see first-hand the challenges people face. It was in Uganda that the two runners decided to create a food program, which would empower families to support themselves through farming. They called it Cents for Seeds, and it became the main focus for their new organisation, Love Mercy Foundation.
“The soil there is incredibly fertile,” Eloise said.
“It’s been said poverty in Africa would be eradicated if all of Uganda’s soil was used to full capacity. You throw some seed on the ground and it will grow, as long as there’s rain.”
The Love Mercy Foundation has raised almost $3 million since 2010 and empowered many Ugandans.
Their website states: “Love Mercy sees a future where Northern Uganda is transformed through simple solutions to poverty. Our projects increase access to education, health care, and income generation, and are funded entirely by generous donations to the public.”
Cents for Seeds funds a micro-financing program that has supported tens of thousands of women to start farming by loaning them a 30kg bag of seeds. At the end of the season the loan is repaid and those seeds can be passed on to another family in need.
“It’s taking away the traditional model of sponsoring individual children and it is empowering families to be able to create their own cash flow and sustainability to do that themselves,” Eloise said.
“To pay for school fees and buy other household items and to put their kids through education after school – that, for me, is really exciting.”
Eloise said the foundation, along with her Christian faith, had helped her stay motivated to keep at the top of her sport.
She said she thought about Love Mercy all the time when she’s running – sometimes even taking phone meetings as she trains.
Eloise Wellings is the keynote speaker at UnitingWomen 2018, a biennial gathering of women across the Uniting Church.
The conference will take place at Brisbane’s Somerville House from 27 to 30 September.
To register, visit unitingwomen.org.au.