Words by Mike Finch
Pictures by Ben Bergh
They say true champions are made, not born. If 26-year-old LJ van Zyl stands on the starting line in the final of the 400m hurdles at the London Olympic Games, he will be a shining example of that powerful philosophy.
Already a medallist at the World Athletics Championships, World Juniors, African champs and World Cup, Van Zyl’s life reads like a tutorial on perseverance, guts and self-belief – and the rewards that can come from them.
And together with his fiancé, marathoner Irvette van Blerk, he will be representing South Africa at his second Olympic Games, for the one medal he is determined to add to their home mantelpiece.
It’s been a long road for both Van Zyl and Van Blerk, but Van Zyl’s story is arguably one of the most astonishing tales of triumph over adversity in world athletics.
“I don’t talk about this much, but when I was four years old I developed this sickness in my legs,” Van Zyl admits. “It was polio. When I was growing up my trousers were always full of holes and my shoes were scuffed and skew, because of the way I walked.”
Van Zyl remembers a time when he raced a friend over 50 metres – and came second, as he dragged his limp leg with him.
So severe was the polio that Van Zyl had to use the neighbour’s Shetland pony at the family farm in Molteno in the Eastern Cape, just so he could keep up with his friends.
“That horse is what got me strong,” Van Zyl remembers. “I would have to walk to the neighbour’s farm five kilometres away to go and fetch him for the weekend when I came back from hostel.”
When Van Zyl was diagnosed with polio there was little his parents could do for him, and they resigned themselves to having a physically challenged son.
“Bloem is 300km away; so when I got sick, that was it.”
But as Van Zyl took his weekly 10-kay round trip to collect his weekend ‘transport’, he became stronger, as his legs healed. It was this fight for mobility that began to instil in Van Zyl a deep-rooted determination to succeed.
There are other stories, too.
At age 11, Van Zyl felt the peer pressure to hunt a springbok – a ritual among the local farm boys as they approached teenagehood. But his father didn’t want his son to own a rifle. Instead Van Zyl decided to chase down a herd of springbok on a horse, and earn his stripes his own way.
“Eventually the horse got tired, so I got off and chased the springbok myself. I chased it for miles, and eventually caught and strangled it. I managed to get the springbok up on the horse, and took it home.”
It was that incident that earned him the nickname ‘MacGyver’ from his parents, because he ‘always came up with a plan’.
From early on, the recipe for Van Zyl’s success was clear. At the age of six he watched his first hurdles event, peering in amazement at Kevin Young as he broke the 400m hurdles world record at the 1992 Olympic Games.
“I just remember saying to myself that I would be there one day. I had no doubt in my mind.”
As Van Zyl’s talent grew, eventually he made the team for the 2002 World Junior athletics championships in Jamaica – an event that would confirm his world-class talent.
“I won the gold medal there. Got free clothes and a deal with adidas! So I thought… well, I may as well carry on doing this athletics thing,” Van Zyl remembers.
His decision to ‘carry on’ proved to be South Africa’s gain, and having won medals in every major athletics event except the Olympics, Van Zyl will already be remembered as one of South Africa’s athletics greats.
“I think I’ve been lucky because, despite my history, I’ve had no major injuries,” Van Zyl says of his success. “I look after myself well. I have massage twice a week, rehab and ice baths, and I focus on eating well and not drinking. It has allowed me to train consistently, and that’s key when you’re competing at this level.”
But while there are hundreds of athletes who do all the right stuff, Van Zyl stands apart because of his competitive spirit.
“There’s a switch that goes on when I’m competing against the best. If the switch doesn’t come on, then I’m pathetic. Give me a Diamond League, against the best in the world, and I’ll go. But if you ask me to race a league meeting against weak opposition… I’ve never run well. I need to be in the zone.”
Van Zyl’s fifth place in Beijing was a big disappointment in light of his ability to handle the big occasion, and his aim is to medal in London.
“I remember travelling to the Bird’s Nest and thinking that there are millions of people who train hard and never get the chance to reach an Olympic final. I was so excited that I went out really fast over the first six hurdles, and then just died at the end.”
Luckily for Van Zyl, his biggest supporter will be with him in London. He and Van Blerk, 24, aim to marry in December, and there is little doubt that they will help each other handle the pressure.
Engaging and warm, they continually poke fun at each other in a playful relationship that is dominated by their training and sport.
“When we first met, in 2004, she had a boyfriend and I had a girlfriend. Eventually, in 2008, I invited her to come and see my new house – and she never went home,” Van Zyl beams.
“LJ has been a big motivation and role model for me,” says Van Blerk. “He proves that anything is possible… and, more importantly, he’s my man!”
Van Blerk qualified for the Olympics first time out, running 2:33.41 in her first attempt at the marathon distance, after a background in track and 10km road racing. Van Blerk will join Tanith Maxwell and René Kalmer in a full-strength women’s team.
“I really want to run a PB at the Olympics,” Van Blerk says. “The marathon is definitely a bigger challenge than the half marathon, but I like the distance. You get new respect for marathoners once you’ve done one.
“You go through stages where you feel you just don’t want to continue anymore. I had to talk to myself the whole time, and focus on finishing.”
Despite the brilliance of her debut, Van Blerk had a less-than-perfect race, and battled with nausea between the 25 and 35km mark after missing her water bottle at one of the earlier water stations.
“Because I had to slow down in the first half, I was also kicking my calves a lot in the first 10km. I wanted to stop, because I couldn’t go… it was frustrating to hold back. But in the end it worked for me, and my coach (Gerrie Coetzee) worked it out perfectly.”
Van Blerk still aims to race the shorter distances, but plans on running at least two marathons a year to improve her time.
“I really want to try and run a good marathon. I want to get my body adapted to racing that way… get my mindset tougher. It’s a really great distance.”
Van Blerk herself has had her fair share of trauma in recent years. She was badly injured in a scooter accident at the peak of her track running career, when she was 17, lost her stepfather (one of her biggest supporters) in a motorcycle accident, and last year was hit by a car.
For both Van Zyl and Van Blerk, the London Olympics will be a celebration; not only of their relationship and their talent, but of two proud South Africans who have shown us the value of self-belief.