The University of Pretoria honoured Olympic gold medallist Caster Semenya and hurdles champion LJ van Zyl as Athletes of the Century at the recent TuksAthletics Centenary gala dinner, which celebrated 100 years of UP sporting excellence.
Hardly a year has gone by since 1918 without at least one Tuks athlete pushing the boundaries to set new challenges – and the judges decided Semenya and Van Zyl represent the pinnacle of sporting achievement over TuksAthletics’ first century.
Semenya’s success story started when she joined TuksAthletics in 2009 as a shy young athlete from Limpopo, and over the past 10 years, she’s defied the many obstacles thrown in her path.
Her performance in the 800m speaks for itself: Semenya won Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016, and three gold medals at the World Championships (2009, 2011 and 2017). She went on to win bronze in the 1500m at the 2017 IAAF Championships, and gold for the 800m and 1500m at this year’s Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. And her best 800m time of 1:54.25 places her fourth on the IAAF all-time list.
Hurdles champ Van Zyl has been one of South Africa’s most prolific international medal winners since 1992, and what makes his achievements all the more remarkable is that he was diagnosed with polio at three years old. Van Zyl believes that running and hurdling played a significant role in helping him to overcome polio.
Tuks Athletes of the Century LJ van Zyl and Caster Semenya (middle) with (from left) TuksSport Director Toby Sutcliffe, UP Vice-Chancellor Professor Cheryl de la Rey, Sport and Recreation Minister Tokozile Xasa, and Athletics SA President Aleck Skhosana.
He was a junior 400m hurdles world champion in 2002, won gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and bronze at the 2011 World Championships. He was also part of the relay team that took home the silver medal in the 4x400m relay at the 2006 Commonwealth Games as well as at the 2011 World Championships.
Van Zyl was the first athlete to set a South African record on the Tuks track when on 25 February 2011, he raced to a 47.66s win. But the pinnacle of his hurdling career was undoubtedly in 2011, when in the space of just 95 days, he broke through the 48 seconds barrier on four occasions, clocking the four fastest times of the year. Though he admits that running 47.50s would probably have been the ultimate race for him.
Speaking to the Sunday Times, Van Zyl praised his fellow Athlete of the Century. “Whether you are measuring in terms of records or medals, [the Athlete of the Century is] Caster.”
He was humble about his own achievement, saying he was surprised to be named TuksAthletics’ best male athlete of the past 100 years. “There have been so many outstanding athletes at Tuks, which is why I consider this award such a huge honour. I have truly been blessed through my participation in athletics. Not only have I met my wife, Irvette, because of the sport, but I have also been privileged in going to 78 different countries. And through my travels I’ve made wonderful friends.”
Van Zyl says he wants to continue to be part of the constant quest to identify new talent in South African athletics, and help young athletes reach their full potential. “Over the 17 years in which I’ve been actively competing, I failed on countless occasions, but I also gained valuable experience. It puts me in an ideal position to become a mentor for younger athletes and coaches. I would especially like to work with younger coaches.”
The other Tuks athletes to receive awards were:
Centenary Honourable Recognition – June Mackenzie
Male Athlete of the Year – Akani Simbine
Female Athlete of the Year – Carina Horn
Junior Male Athlete of the Year – Sokwakana Zazini
Junior Female Athlete of the Year – Yvonne Robson
Most Promising Male Athlete of the Year – Thembo Monareng
Most Promising Female Athlete of the Year – Prudence Sekgodisa