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LJ's Olympic diary - Rio 2016

Thursday, 18 August

It’s obviously very disappointing to miss out on a place in the final of the 400m hurdles.

So close, yet so far. I was just 0.36 seconds behind Rasmus Magi, who finished fourth in my semifinal, just ahead of me. But those are the small margins of top level international sport.

I felt like I was in the mix until about 40 or 50 metres to go. Then, with my last hurdle, I had to stretch and didn’t get a good landing. From there I just lost rhythm, speed and momentum. I had to catch up, but it was already too late. I thought that I had it, but in the blink of an eye everything changed.

I’ve watched the video a couple of times and I ran a good race until that last hurdle. Everything was spot-on until that point, including the weather, the fast track etc. I think the quality of the 400m hurdles semifinals was pretty good, and I think the top two guys in the final will probably dip below 48 seconds. I’m tipping Kerron Clement to win, possibly followed by Yasmani Copello of Turkey, and then hopefully one of the two Kenyans or Javier Culson.

Once the race was done, I had to make my way through the media zone, which takes about 40 minutes. What’s even worse is that after a tough race, you have to climb about 70 stairs! Once you’ve negotiated that, you go down into the mixed zone, where you have all the different countries’ media, and there I had a chat with journalists from SuperSport, the SABC etc. You can’t run away from the media – you have to face them, good or bad.

Now it’s about re-grouping and focusing on the next goal. I had a coffee with Wenda Nel the morning after the race. She also went out in the semifinals of her 400m hurdles. I just said to her that the Olympics is fantastic and a great opportunity, but that it is not the be-all-and-end-all. There are other competitions out there, such as the World Championships, Commonwealth Games, African Championships, Golden League events etc.

For me, the World Championships in London next year are my next immediate goal, to be followed by the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast of Australia in 2018. That will be my final major championship and almost a “closing of the circle”, as the Commonwealth Games and Australia are where I made a name for myself, winning gold in Melbourne in 2006.

Usually you have to leave the athletes’ village the day after your event ends, but I’m staying on for a couple of days and my focus is on supporting Caster, as I think she’s going to need it. She looked great in her heat and I’m obviously hoping she keeps performing and cruises into the final.

Right now I’m off to get what I hope is a really nice freebie. Khotso Mokoena told me that Beats By Dre headphones are being handed out somewhere, so I’m tagging along!

Tuesday, 16 August

I’m writing this the morning after qualifying for the semifinals of my event, the 400 metre hurdles.

I’ve just gone for a jog and a stretch, which is something I usually do, particularly if my race is late at night. I also try and do it the morning of the race, just to get the muscles working and ready for what’s in store.

I also fitted in a massage and some ice recovery, so the work done after the race is incredibly important, particularly if you have another race coming up soon, which I obviously do.

Looking back at the day of the race, I thought you might be interested in what goes into it, in terms of my movements.

In terms of breakfast, I like my FutureLife, some scrambled eggs and toast. That’s what I usually like and what I like on race days – I don’t change anything.

Once breakfast was done I had arranged to catch the bus at 08h30 (my heat was at 11h35) with some other athletes. It was pretty crowded on the bus and I was crammed into a seat next to someone I didn’t know, so there wasn’t much chatting.

So, the day of my heat, everything went according to plan, although the bus trip to the stadium was quicker than I expected. As a result, I had more time available to warm-up, but I hardly needed that as it was so hot, around 35 degrees. I usually do some jogging and go over a couple of hurdles four or five times, but this time I did a lot less and felt warm enough. At the warm-up track each country has their own tent with doctor and physio, so it’s pretty organised.

Once you’re done with the warm-up, you go through to the first call room, where I find it’s just important to stay loose and try to empty of your mind of any thoughts – you don’t want to second-guess yourself. Once you get to the final call room, there’s a long strip of track under the stadium where you can go through a few paces. Here you also take off any tracksuits, they check your spikes, you leave your bag there etc.

Once on the track, I set up my blocks and do a few strides into the first hurdle – there isn’t much time, only four minutes before the race. Then they introduce all the athletes, you get ready, and then you’re off.

Post-race, the day after, I’ve just been taking it easy and relaxing, spending time in my room, watching funny movies etc. It’s pretty quiet in the athletes’ village as most of them have gone home – you need to leave the village the day after your event ends.

I was fairly happy with my heat as it was the third fastest time I had run this year. The next step, though, is the semifinal.

Lastly, a word on Wayde’s phenomenal performance. I also ran in lane eight, like Wayde, and I could still feel the heat in my lane! We all knew that Wayde would produce a performance like that at some stage. It was just incredible that he did it in an Olympic final. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go under 43 seconds one of these days.


Sunday, 14 August

The last couple of days have been all about my 400m hurdles heat on Monday and that has been my sole focus.

Of course, it’s a bit different having your wife here with you and as a competing athlete as well, but it’s definitely been a positive change.

Unfortunately, things did not go well for Irvette, who was meant to run the women’s marathon on Sunday. She picked up some pain in her foot and had to undergo a fitness test on Saturday. Unfortunately, she failed that fitness test and, despite lots of painkillers, a decision was taken that she couldn’t run. It’s been devastating for her and me, and as I write this on Sunday afternoon, she’s already left the athletes’ village and is flying home. It’s not a stress fracture – instead, they call it a “stress reaction” and it’s the beginning stages of an injury.

It really is heart-breaking, as years of preparation have gone into this for Irvette and us as a couple. For four years we’ve been dreaming of competing together and now it comes to this. My only thought is that everything happens for a reason, even if it doesn’t seem obvious now.

It’s now even more important for me to stay focused on my competition. I went to the track this morning and did some work on hurdles one to three, and I felt good. Now I’m just waiting for the start list this evening, which I’ll probably have by the time you read this. That will show me what time my heat is, who is in my heat, how many heats there are. That will also determine how many athletes qualify for the next round from each heat. I think the first heat is at 11:35am Rio time, so 4:35pm SA time. I’ve already planned what time I will have breakfast, what time I’ll catch the bus, get to the track, and start my warm-up.

The whole process starts around three hours before the race. You want to warm up about 90 minutes before the race and then they call you about 50 minutes before. You go into the call room and they check your bag, your clothes, your spikes. You then move into the second call room and then a final one before you get to the track and your race.

It’s been a strange couple of days. I’ve actually just come from a random drug test, which fortunately took place about a hundred metres from my apartment in the athletes’ village. How it works is that you get a call from Wada, the World Anti-Doping Agency, and then you have an hour to make yourself available for the test. The paperwork takes forever, so the whole process is about an hour-and-a-half and includes both a urine and a blood sample.

Otherwise, I’ve just been taking it easy and staying off my legs.

I did visit the souvenir shop to get a few things. I got a T-shirt, a mascot for my little boy Louis, and a 1000-piece puzzle, which is something I did in London four years ago. It’s a nice memento and I’m going to get someone to frame the two puzzles for me.

Lastly, just a word on Luvo winning silver in the long jump. I’m so chuffed for him and it was a fantastic performance. I don’t know him well, but I have spent time with him and have seen him at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria, where we both train. His performance was inspirational, particularly considering what he’s been through, and I’m hoping it will drive us to more medals in the athletics team.


Friday, 12 August

I’ve started to focus on my upcoming heats on Monday and Tuesday, and the next few days will be all about that.

I’ve spent some good time on the practice track, and my most recent session saw me concentrate on hurdles five through to eight, the most crucial part of the race for me.

That was followed by a massage session, and generally I’m feeling good.

The weather is a bit cold and wet, so I enjoyed my hot shower and massage. It’s also one of the reasons why Irvette and I haven’t done much sight-seeing.

That’s along with the fact that Copacabana beach – one of the things we want to see – is apparently about a two-hour drive away. As I’ve already mentioned, the traffic is unbelievable and some athletes are spending hours in taxis trying to get there and back.

One sight I definitely want to catch, though, before I leave Rio, is the Christ the Redeemer statue.

I’ve had the chance to check out the main stadium, both the warm-up track and the main one. It’s a hard track, so times are going to be quick. I’m saying this almost at the same time that Almaz Ayana is setting a new world record in the women’s 10 000 metres. It might not be the last world record of the track and field competition.

Another interesting observation of the stadium is that it’s not completely closed, so it can get windy. As a result, I’ve had to develop a plan B for my stride pattern, if the conditions are different on the day that I compete.

If the wind is behind me, I will probably have to go with 13 strides, but anything else and I will stick with my original plan, which is 14 strides until hurdle six and then 15 all the way home.

I managed to get out and watch our sevens rugby guys play Great Britain in the semifinals. Obviously it was disappointing to see them lose, but they still did really well to go on and win a bronze medal.

I saw my old school mate Philip Snyman at physio. He said that a couple of the guys were disappointed to not win gold, but I told him that a medal of any colour was still a great achievement.

I’m really excited for my room-mate Rynardt van Rensburg. He ran the third fastest time in the 800 metres heats and came second in his actual heat to defending champion and world record holder David Rudisha.

It was a great performance in his first big meet, particularly as it was a season’s best and just outside his personal best.

Your first big meet can be overwhelming, but he seems to be handling it just fine.

Maybe I’m Rynardt’s lucky charm? I’m thinking that because three, four weeks ago I was rooming with Akani Simbine and on the morning of his race, I asked him what the pin code for his iPhone was and took a guess at 9898. That night he ran his personal best of 9.89 seconds in the 100 and broke the South African record!

It’s great having Irvette here, although we’re not sharing a room. She’s just down the hall, sharing a room with Sunette Viljoen.

Another reason why we haven’t done much sight-seeing is that she competes in the marathon on Sunday, so she needs to take it easy and not take too many steps.

It’s something I’ve tried to cut down in the last day or so, as I get nearer my heats. Just going to training and back I notched up 8 000 steps, so I’m trying to limit that and give my legs a break. As it is, they get enough of a workout going to the dining hall and back!

In terms of celebrity spotting, I saw Martina Hingis in the dining hall and was blown away by just how small she is. I didn’t get a photo as there were a lot of people around. The only other “big name” I’ve seen is our sports minister, who visited the team in the athletes’ village.

I hope he brings us some luck!


Tuesday, 9 August

It was great getting out on the practice track the past few days, but I’m looking forward to spending some time in the main stadium in the next few days. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a drive from the athletes’ village and could take us about an hour and a half.

Fortunately, there are dedicated Olympic lanes for the official buses and taxis to use, because the traffic in Rio is something else. It really is a busy city and even more so at the moment, for obvious reasons.

I’ve been trying to think what other cities Rio reminds me of and all I can come up with is that it’s a bit like an island city or town, with a real holiday/beach/coastal vibe about it. I haven’t got to Copacabana beach yet, but that’s on my wish list, along with the Christ the Redeemer statue, which I’m going to check out with my wife, Irvette.

As I write this, she’s landed in Sao Paulo and is on her way here. She will be competing in the marathon on Sunday, so it’s a big week for the Van Zyl family! I’ve made a request for her to at least stay on the same floor as me, so I’m waiting to see what happens. I think she’ll be sharing with either Caster or Sunette.

On that note, I had an interesting chat with Allyson Felix, the American sprinter who has won six Olympic medals. She told me that she was moving out of the athletes’ village, because the Americans have set up a facility outside of it for those athletes who want to move out. It is apparently much more comfortable, with private food, individual rooms with TVs in them, new mattresses etc. I suppose, if you have the resources…..

On Monday I visited the Adidas guys who look after their athletes here and they kindly gave me a gift bag, shoes and my new spikes, which I will run in and are really nice. However, the day unfolded rather strangely after that. I shared a taxi with my coach, Irma and a couple of Polish athletes and left my accreditation on the dashboard of the taxi.

Once I’d finished going through the Google Translate process, paying the taxi driver and got out, I suddenly realised that my accreditation was still on his dashboard. Unfortunately, he sped off, so I ended up chasing him through the traffic for about 500 metres before he got away from me. Probably not the best preparation for my event, but maybe some good speed training!

Anyway, I was a bit stressed out, because I thought that getting new accreditation would be a real schlep. Fortunately, an English volunteer quickly took me to the “athletes’ problems centre” and I had some ID on me, so I was able to get new accreditation, as they wouldn’t let me back in the athletes’ village. Funnily enough, I then got a knock on my door hours later, with the taxi driver returning my original accreditation, meaning I now have two!

I’m a bit of a coffee fanatic and I’ve been really disappointed in the quality of the coffee here in Rio, which I wasn’t expecting. In fact, the best coffee I’ve found here has been at McDonald’s!

As a result, I received a nice surprise when I hooked up with the sevens rugby guys. I was at school with Philip Snyman and he introduced me to his teammates. I walked into their team room and couldn’t believe my eyes – these guys had a travel coffee ‘kit’ with beans, grinder, the whole works! I was in absolute heaven.

What also struck me was just what an amazing spirit there is among the sevens squad. These guys have an incredible culture and ‘gees’ going there, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win a medal.

On that note, the mood has definitely lifted in the South African team after Cameron and Chad won those silver medals. I’m hoping this week ends strongly, so we’ve got a couple in the bag going into week two.

Physically, I’m feeling good and my eye has recovered. The doc just had me put some gel on it overnight, and fortunately it cleared up by the morning.


Sunday, 7 August

It’s great to be in Rio after a bit of a long trip. My flight from Johannesburg to Sao Paulo was delayed, so I had to get a later connecting flight and it resulted in me arriving in Rio rather late on Saturday evening.

A lot has been said and written about the quality of the athletes’ village – most of it not very nice – but I think it’s one of the nicest I’ve stayed in, comparing it with what I experienced in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012.

I’m sharing a two-bedroom apartment with 800m runner Reinhardt van Rensburg and it’s pretty comfortable – it’s clean, the toilet works, the shower is good etc. I think the way it works is that as athletes arrive, they are paired with other athletes who arrive at the same time. Ours is in a great location, close to the transport and dining hall, and with an amazing view of the mountains and Christ the Redeemer statue.

Despite my late arrival, I was still up for breakfast at seven o’clock and to check out the dining hall. It was also pretty impressive, although I was a little disappointed that they had run out of cereal and porridge, so I grabbed my own from my room and got by with that. In fact, there were a lot of food stations ‘out of stock’, so maybe seven was a bit early for them??

I actually hooked up with the two South African cyclists, Daryl Impey and Louis Meintjes at breakfast, and walked back to the apartment with them. I hadn’t met them before, so I just introduced myself. Louis came seventh in the men’s road race a couple of days ago and he was really chuffed with his result, even though he would have loved a medal. He also talked about the many sacrifices he has made, training a lot in Spain and spending a lot of time away from home.

After that I decided to get a rub down from the physio, just to get the travelling out of my muscles, and there I bumped into Gary Player, who happened to know exactly who I was. He was fantastic and we had a great chat over a coffee afterwards. In fact, Gary and I have something in common – his farm in South Africa is in Colesberg and I’m from Molteno, with the two towns not that far apart.

I was actually due to have a recovery training session today, again to get the travelling out of my legs, but I woke up with a swollen eye and the doc says it’s either an infection or a cist. So, with it being quite windy today, I have to stay out of it. I’m hoping it clears up soon.

I still have some time, though, with my heats due to take place on the 15th and 16th of August, and the final of the 400m hurdles on the 18th. I’m really looking forward to my event, as I had a couple of really good sessions last week and my form is good.

For now, though, I’m not thinking too much about it, as it’s still a week away. I’m more concerned with relaxing, getting the travelling out of my system, and adjusting to the time zone. Rio is five hours behind South Africa and my heats are in the evening. So, that means I’ll effectively be competing around three o’clock in the morning, SA time, which I need to adjust to. I have a week to do that.

I haven’t seen much of Rio just yet, but hope to do some exploring in the coming days.

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