Jacques van Zyl © Gallo Images

Feature - Jacques van Zyl

There was no sign of any nerves as judoka Jacques van Zyl arrived at this week’s training camp at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria.

“I am sure once we get to London the nerves will be there as I have always dreamed of competing at the Games and once we arrive I think it will finally sink in,” he said.

The humble 22-year-old, who fights in the under-73kg division and is one of the younger members of Team SA, keeps his feet firmly on the ground or tatami (the contest mat).

Van Zyl's passion for judo started when he was only eight years old and 14 years later he is living his dream of competing at the Olympic Games.

“When I was a young boy I told my first coach Danie Bruwer, who introduced me to the sport, that I want to go to the Olympics, so this is truly a dream come true for me.

Van Zyl was so passionate about judo that at the age of nine he won the first national championships he took part in. Things moved along and since then he has won another six national titles.

In 2005 he moved to Bloemfontein to attend Grey College where Vincent and Esme-Joan Redpath played a key role in his sports career.

His big break came in 2008 when he got a scholarship from Mr Yasuhiro Yamashita [Japanese judo legend and 1984 Olympic gold medallist] to train at Tokai University in Japan. He spent eight months in Japan, training with the best judokas.

The hard work in Japan really paid off. Still a junior, Van Zyl won his first medal at the Africa Championships in Agadir, Morocco, in 2009 where he took bronze in the under-66 kilogram division.

A major boost on his march to qualification for the London Olympics was winning gold at the African Championships last year. It was only the second time that a South African had won gold at the continental championships and he was the youngest ever at 19.

But he wanted to qualify for the 2012 Games and a silver medal in the final Olympic qualification event, the Africa Championships in Agadir, Morocco, was his first step in securing his place in the team.

Van Zyl was ranked 25 in the world and needed to get to the 22nd spot to book his ticket to London. So he started travelling to more than 20 countries in the east and he finally made it official.

“In Korea I was the first South African to win a medal at a World Cup event where I won a bronze medal and that made an immense contribution toward my qualification.”

It hasn't been an easy road for Van Zyl. He had to give up his studies at the University of Pretoria (Tuks). “I could not continue my studies in sport science as I missed too many classes. I am now studying B.Com Financial Management through Unisa.”

He also had to endure operations to both of his shoulders and sees the London Olympics as his big chance to earn an Olympic medal.

“I am looking at this Olympics as my big chance. I know a lot of people say that at the age of 26 I will be at my peak at the Rio Olympics in 2016, but judo is a very physical sport and I must take my chances at this Olympics,” he said.

According to Van Zyl, the top judokas in his weight class are from Korea, Japan and France.

“Judo is big in these countries. My chances at the Games are as good as any of the other guys in my weight division, maybe even better, because they tend to underestimate the smaller judo countries. The thing with judo is anything can happen on the day, it all depends on how you feel,” he concluded.


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