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High Performance Potch

A quarter of a century has passed since I first went to Potchefstroom. It was for a game of rugby and, on the day in question, an English journalist of my acquaintance arrived at Olen Park and told me he couldn't find his seat in the press box. "What number are you?" I asked. "R-50," he said. "You bloody fool. That's the ticket price!"

Not long afterwards I was sent to Potch by SuperSport to film an insert on a new athletics sensation, an 800m runner by the name of Hezekiel Sepeng. We filmed Sepeng training at his old school, Potch Boys High, which is right next door to Olen Park.

I thought it was quaint that he still used his old school to train, until I discovered that there were few other options. Clearly it didn't hold him back though, a thought that went through my head when I was lucky enough to be in the press box at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, watching Sepeng win the silver medal for South Africa.

Times and facilities have changed in Potch and when, recently, I commentated on Varsity hockey at the Pukke Astro - a fantastic facility on the edge of the North West University (NWU) campus - I was reminded quite how far we have come in the new South Africa.

The SuperSport cameras were in town for two days and so we stayed around the corner from the Astro at the NWU High Performance Centre (HPC). Next to the centre is the rugby ground that has been made famous by the Varsity Cup, and alongside that is the athletics stadium. Between the two is a multi-level gymnasium.

Taken as a whole, it is a world-class facility that attracts athletes from all over the world to train.

In May it is, theoretically at least, quiet. The student rugby season is over and the European athletics season is in full swing. There was a reminder of the missing athletes on the wall of the pavilion at the Astro: a series of framed vests, signed by the athlete it once belonged to. In pride of place was a small, yellow top embellished with the name, "Van Niekerk."

Back at the HPC it was indeed quiet, but far from dead. The gym was full of large fellows pumping iron, I watched a woman running around the extent of the grounds, and on my way back to my room I saw the most astonishing thing of all.

Let me put it into perspective first. The whole of South Africa was in the grip of an icy chill, the first blast of winter. There was snow on the Drakensberg and, on the Sunday in question, the temperature in Potch did not rise above 10 degrees. And yet there, in the hotel swimming pool, were four ladies finishing what, I am reliably informed, is known as a "warm down".

It's not as if they were wearing those thermal 'onesies' that swimmers and divers employ and, no, the pool was not heated. They were dressed in tight fitting (if my eyes did not deceive me) sports bikinis and were apparently impervious to the cold.

Clearly the NWU High Performance Centre lights a fire in the soul of its inhabitants that mere cold cannot extinguish.

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