Team South Africa profile: LJ van Zyl

18 May 2012

South Africa 400 metres hurdler LJ van Zyl made the final at the Beijing Olympics, took bronze at the 2011 IAAF World Championships, and ran the four fastest times of 2011. It’s this kind of form he’ll be looking to carry into the London Olympic Games.

However, he is set to secure the biggest prize of his life six weeks after the Olympics when he marries fellow Olympian, Irvette van Blerk, who will be competing in the women’s marathon. For now, though, Van Zyl’s focus is on the Games.

One of his primary aims will be to peak at the right time. Last year, he ran his five best times between 25 February and 31 May. By the time the IAAF World Championships started on 27 August, he was struggling to maintain his form. Ultimately, he finished third in 48.80 seconds, well off the African continental record of 47.66 that he ran twice earlier in the season.

Flat speed

What was encouraging about 2011, apart from his fast times in the hurdles, was the flat speed Van Zyl exhibited over the 400 metres when he clocked a career best 44.86 in Germiston, which improved his previous best of 45.82 by almost a second.

His early 2011 performances underlined a new, more aggressive approach in which he attacked far earlier than he had in the past, when he relied on his traditionally strong finish. That change paid dividends.

Van Zyl has been a long way off his 2011 form so far in 2012, with a best time of 49.42. From a South African perspective, this is hopefully an indication that he has adjusted his training to peak at the right time because if he does he will be a strong medal contender in London.

International career

It seems as if he has been around for a long time, but that’s because Van Zyl’s international career began way back in 2001 at the World Youth Championships; he is, however, just 26 years of age.

At that same competition, he enjoyed his first taste of international success as part of the bronze medal winning team in the Swedish relay (100m, 200, 300, 400m).

The following year, he won gold in the 400m hurdles at the World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica, clocking a championship record time of 48.89. At that same event, a 15-year-old Jamaican by the name of Usain Bolt won the 200 metres in 20.61 seconds.

World Athletics Finals bronze

In 2005, Van Zyl claimed a bronze medal at the IAAF World Athletics Finals in Monte Carlo, with victory going to Bershawn Jackson, who like Van Zyl remains one of the world’s leading 400m hurdlers and potentially the biggest obstacle between the South African and an Olympic title.

In 2006, at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Van Zyl won gold in a personal best and Games record 48.05 seconds, with another South African, Alwyn Myburgh, in second in 48.23. He was also part of the quartet that claimed a silver medal in the 4 by 400 metres relay.

Although 2007 was a below standard year for Van Zyl, he was crowned African champion at the All Africa Games, winning the title in 48.74, ahead of fellow South Africans Pieter de Villiers and Alwyn Myburgh.

Beijing Olympic Games

The following year he easily won gold at the African Championships in Athletics in Addis Ababa. He qualified for the Beijing Olympic Games and finished fifth in the final. He was third fastest in round one of qualifying and third in his semi-final. His time in the final was a very respectable 48.20 seconds.

In 2009, it appeared that Van Zyl peaked too early when he failed to advance beyond the semi-finals of the IAAF World Championships despite having entered the competition with the fastest time of the year, 47.94. The winner in Berlin, Kerron Clement, managed to better that time by three-hundredths-of-a-second in the final.

Van Zyl won the African Championships once again in 2010, clocking 48.51 seconds to beat compatriot Cornel Fredericks into second place.

Big improvement

Then came 2011 and a big improvement in his fastest times and the bronze medal at the IAAF World Championships. Now, in 2012, Van Zyl is aiming for the biggest title of his career.

Llewellyn Herbert won a bronze medal for South Africa in the 400m hurdles in Sydney in 2000, but Van Zyl can aim higher than that. If he is at his peak, his times could be good enough for him to be crowned Olympic champion.

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