High jumper + 800m runner = 400m hurdler
What do you get when you cross a high jumper with an 800m runner? A 400m hurdler.
LJ van Zyl , whose parents represented the old North-Eastern Cape in track and field, learnt his love for speed on their sheep farm in the Karoo.
Van Zyl , now one of the world’s fastest, jets out to Europe on Tuesday for the Golden League series, which will also form part of his preparation for the Beijing Olympics in August.
In the first meet in Rome next Sunday, he comes up against defending Olympic champion Felix Sanchez.
“I want to feel the Americans, I want to feel the Europeans before Beijing,” said the Tukkies education student, who has a bias for maths and biology.
“I’ll talk about my Olympic chances after the first four Golden League races,” added Van Zyl , famous for his trademark kick at the death.
“I’m a racer, I love the race. For me, the 400m hurdles starts at the last hurdle. You can be first over the last hurdle and still finish last. It’s all about those last 40m.”
Sprinters normally slow down in the second half of a race, as they tire, but Van Zyl ’s split over the latter 200m is about the same as his first. “I’m trying to go faster in the first 200m and still have the same kick at the end. That will get me below 48 seconds.”
Llewellyn Herbert’s SA record of 47.81sec, which won him bronze at the 2000 Sydney Games, would have been good enough for silver at both the 2004 Olympics and last year’s World Championships.
Like Herbert, Van Zyl medalled at a world junior championship, when he claimed gold in 2002 at the age of 16.
Until then he had also shown some rugby talent, playing A-team at Grey College in Bloemfontein, from under-14 to under-16. He even represented Border at the under-13 Craven Week.
“I was just an average fast wing. If you want to go professional you have to have something special. In every sport you have to make magic, and in athletics I believe I can make magic,” Van Zyl , 22, said in an interview at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria.
Van Zyl ’s personal best is his winning 48.05 at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, although for his greatest sorcery, he rates his gritty performance as anchor of the SA 4x400m relay team a few days later.
Coming out of the final bend he was lying fifth and badly boxed in, so he stepped out some two metres and then put his foot down to roar past the opposition and finish second. “I have a video of that race and I still watch it.”
His love for running started as a boy on the family farm near Molteno. Fond of horse riding, he’d have to shepherd horses in from the fields to saddle them up — and that sometimes meant chasing them on foot for up to 5km.
Van Zyl would also challenge his friends to sprints. “We have a driveway, about 500m long, and I’d offer to give them a soccer ball, or pair of shoes, or clothes if they could beat me,” said Van Zyl .
He was also the striker for the farm’s social soccer team. “I had an awesome childhood, sometimes I still long for those days.”
He remains a farm boy at heart and buys cows when he has spare cash. “I leave them on the farm and my dad looks after them — at least I hope he does.”
Dad Japie did the high jump and mom Martie was the runner.
When he has a few days off, Van Zyl heads to the farm, or to his other favourite haunt, Jeffreys Bay.
But life in Pretoria isn’t bad, either. He gets to escape to the small-holding of girlfriend Claudia Viljoen, a member of the SA team for the World Junior Championships in Poland in July.
And occasionally he hangs out with swimming star Ryk Neethling. “For last year’s Currie Cup final we drove down to Bloemfontein. We’ve had a few lekker kuiers (nice times) together. He doesn’t go out too much, though.”
Van Zyl admits he partied too much in 2004 and as a result failed to qualify for the Athens Games. “It was my first year out of school. You can do what you want — sometimes you forget to train, forget to sleep.”
Van Zyl learns from his mistakes, like when he was eliminated at last year’s World Championships in the heats. “I underestimated my opposition and slowed down and two guys dipped me on the line. I’ll never underestimate anyone again.”
Nobody is likely to underestimate him either.