Sprints on his mind

2016-03-09 06:00
Facing the country’s best river paddlers, Michaelhouse schoolboy Jean van der  Westhuyzen placed an outstanding fourth overall in the N3TC Drak Challenge in January.PHOTO: gameplan media

Facing the country’s best river paddlers, Michaelhouse schoolboy Jean van der Westhuyzen placed an outstanding fourth overall in the N3TC Drak Challenge in January.PHOTO: gameplan media

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AT the age of 16, Michaelhouse’s Jean van der Westhuyzen won gold for South Africa at the 2014 ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships in Oklahoma City, teaming up with Louis Hattingh to take out the junior K2 title. His primary focus nowadays, though, is sprints.

That victory in the U.S. was unexpected, Jean admitted recently.

“That was a big surprise. I never expected it at all because I never made the sprint team in 2014 for the World Champs, and then it was quite a surprise to go to the 2014 World Marathon Championships and an even bigger surprise to get a medal there. It was a really awesome experience.”

World Championships success was, unfortunately, followed by a stress fracture of the lower neck in 2015, which sidelined the young star for a year.

“Last year was a really tough year for me. I really struggled with it,” Jean shared. “The injury was not great at all. It was a shock to me. I had never had something as serious as that in my life and in my sporting career. I never really knew what to do.

“It was super-tough watching my competition do well and achieve big results when I thought I could be there and competing against them. But I am really happy now that I am recovered and training hard again.”

Jean showed that he is back on track at the end of January when he took part in the N3TC Drak Challenge.

Competing against a high-quality field, he finished fourth overall and cruised to the under-18 title in the two-day event, crossing the finishing line behind only Andy Birkett, Len Jenkins and Owen Gandar.

Jean learnt to paddle in Grade 2 at Bridgehouse in the Western Cape and started taking his training more seriously towards the end of his primary school career. Then he moved to Michaelhouse where, he said, his paddling really took off in Grade 7.

Looking back on the path his paddling career has taken, Jean said: “I enjoyed the shorter stuff, and then when I moved to Michaelhouse I started training at Natal Canoe Club at Camps Drift. There were quite a few sprinters there, so watching them there gave me motivation to do better in that discipline. I started training for the 1 000 m, 500 m and 200 m and began to enjoy it a lot more.”

Paddlers, though, have been taking a far more rounded approach to the sport in recent years, and Jean plans to follow that path, too, by also competing in marathon racing.

He explained: “I am keen to do both disciplines this year. I haven’t been to a Junior Sprint World Champs, and I think if I can maybe make an A final there, I would be really chuffed. I’m really keen to go back to the World Marathon Championships to try and give it another shot, because I was injured for the whole of last year.”

This past weekend, he was in action at the KZN Sprint Canoe Championships, where he chose to contest the senior category rather than the under-18 division: “I thought I would get closer racing in the senior category because I felt racing in a higher age group would be more intense and faster. I think that is what the level is going to be like overseas.”

It turns out the step up wasn’t too much for Jean. In fact he excelled. He placed second in the 200 m K1, won the K2 200 m with Louis Hattingh over more fancied opposition, claimed the 1 000 m K2 title in convincing fashion with Hattingh, and held off Hattingh to claim the 1 000 m K1 victory.

This coming weekend, he will again be in action at Shongweni Dam in the South African Sprint Canoe Championships, where he will aim to build on those impressive results.

Name: Jean van der Westhuyzen

Age: 17

School: Michaelhouse

Sport: Canoeing

Ambition: to win a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

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