WHEN elite long-distance runner Eloise Wellings takes to the track she has more than medals on her mind.
Lining up on the Gold Coast for her fourth Commonwealth Games in the 10,000m and 5000m, Ms Wellings also has her focus fixed on Love Mercy, a foundation she co-founded to help communities in northern Uganda overcome poverty after decades of civil war.
For almost a decade, Love Mercy has been a passion for Ms Wellings – inspired by her Christian faith – and helping to keep her motivated and competing at the top of her sport.
“I think about it all the time when I am running,” she said of the foundation that has raised millions of dollars and empowered women and girls to access education and health care, and generate income.
“It is such a privilege and an honour to see the people we have helped in Uganda, but then I see how much more there is to do.”
Eloise Wellings, 35, married and with a young daughter, has a sporting story that goes well beyond the usual script of determination, success and a list of best performances.
She feels comfortable sharing her faith with Commonwealth Games athletes around her “who don’t know God yet”.
“Because we all go through similar things as athletes – the heartbreaking injuries, the mental battles – we’re all trying to get the most out of the gifts we’ve been given,” she said.
Ms Wellings attends the Thrive Community Church in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire, a church with a mission statement that reads: “We are people who live out the love of Jesus wherever we are, actively following his call to make disciples.”
Raised in a Catholic family, and with her first schooling at St Catherine’s, Gymea, Ms Wellings said it wasn’t until she was in her early 20s that she experienced a “faith awakening”.
It happened at a critical time in her sporting career – after her first major track injury, and missing the Sydney Olympics.
“I had thought my injury was a case of God punishing me because I had done something wrong,” she said.
“I think a pinnacle moment was going to church with a school friend and hearing the Gospel and understanding grace.
“I guess a light bulb just went on, and I started to understand God’s love for me.”
Early in her running career, Ms Wellings had also struggled with an eating disorder.
“It’s a mental illness. 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,” she said.
“I finally, thankfully, was able to get through it and never look back.
Ms Wellings said her decision to “follow Jesus and live for Him … was a huge, pivotal moment”.
She was able to reflect on her life and her career up to that point.
“It turned everything on its head. I was running for approval, and had a perfectionist view and almost being a slave to the sport,” Ms Wellings said.
“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.”
She went on to qualify and compete in both the London and Rio Olympics.
However it was in 2010 while recovering from injury that life took another turn.
Ms Wellings was attending a running camp in the United States when she had a chance meeting with Julius Achon, a Ugandan Olympian and former child soldier.
Moved by his stories, she was inspired to visit Africa to witness the plight of children first hand.
Ms Wellings witnessed poverty and hunger, and the two athletes decided to create a food program, empowering families to create new livelihoods through farming.
“The soil there is incredibly fertile. It’s been said if all of Uganda’s soil was used to full capacity, it would eradicate poverty in Africa,” she said.
“You throw some seed on the ground and it will grow, for as long as there’s rain.”
In eight years, Love Mercy has raised $2.5 million.
Donations are used to fund Cents for Seeds, a micro-financing loan program that has supported 13,800 women.
For each $30 donation a woman is provided with a loan of a 30kg bag of seeds to farm.
Because of the richness of the soil, harvests produce 200-300kg of food.
“It’s actually empowering the family to sustain their own livelihood, and empowering them to send their own children to school,” Ms Wellings said.
“At the end of the season a woman brings back the loan and we can pass it on to another woman in the next season.”
Ms Wellings will run the 10,000m event at GC2018 tomorrow (April 9), followed by the 5000m on Saturday, April 14.