Posted on August 22, 2022
Since 2016, name a South African coach who has athletes medalling at the Olympic Games, Paralympic Games, World Athletics Championships and the Commonwealth Games? There is a real chance that very few sports fans will know the answer to this. At the same time, it does not faze Neil Cornelius because he is not coaching to be famous and gets a kick when athletes fulfil their goals.
This is why he spends hours next to the sand pit, trying to figure out what it will take for long and triple jumpers to "fly through the air" for those precious few seconds longer. If they do, it means they will medal.
The TuksAthletics coach is seemingly doing something right. Results don't lie. In 2016, Luvo Manyonga won silver in the men’s long jump during the Rio Olympics. The following year, Manyonga won gold at the World Athletics Championships in London. At the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics in Japan, Ntando Mahlangu won gold in the men’s T63 long jump. To date, Jovan van Vuuren became his latest long jumper to a medal, picking a bronze at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games in England.
Cornelius is a full-time coach but does not see everything he does as work. To him, it is a calling. He lives for that moment when one of his athletes achieves the goal they set themselves.
"It is hard to describe the feelings I had experienced when Jovan (Van Vuuren) won bronze during the Birmingham Commonwealth Games. When I saw the joy . . . emotion on his face, I realised again why I was coaching. It is to make a difference. You can't put a monetary value to any such moment."
According to Cornelius, athletics is in his blood.
"I grew up next to the athletics track when my dad was coaching. My uncle Steve was quite competitive when he competed as a junior in discus and hammer throw events. Unfortunately, my athletics career was curtailed by an ankle ligament injury early on.
"I still wanted to be involved in athletics, so I started to coach. Within a year, one of my young athletes jumped further than I did as a senior. It made me realise that I might have a coaching talent."
As said, Cornelius is on a constant quest to find ways to help the athletes he coaches improve and to win medals.
"I have found that you can learn a lot by listening and interacting with other coaches. I am never shy to ask others for help. Recently, I had interesting conversations with Paul Gorries (sprint coach at Tuks) about what I can do to improve my jumpers' speed in their run-ups.
"During the Games, I met Khotso Mokoena (a former SA long jump record-holder). He told me what he did when he was at his best. It made me think. I also correspond with some international coaches.
"It is essential to get as many ideas as I have learned there is not one definite blueprint to success. Every so often, what works for one athlete does not work for another.
"That is why it also helps to listen to your athletes. They have come up with some exciting ideas, which have led to better results. I think the most important thing any coach should realise is that you will never know everything."
It is often said that behind any men's success story is a woman who inspires. For Cornelius, it is his wife, Willa.
"In any job, you are bound to have bad days. Times when it feels like everything you do bombs out. That is when my wife steps up and encourages me not to give up. She is my pillar of strength, and I am forever grateful for that."
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