The heavens opened on day one of the IAAF World Under-18 Athletics Championships in Nairobi, Kenya, on Wednesday… and rained down a gold and silver medal for South Africa.
One-hundred-metre sprinters Tshenolo Lemao and Retshidisitswe Mlenga splashed to gold and silver medals in the final, securing the rainbow nation’s first-ever 100m medals at an IAAF World Championships event.
That saw them topping the medals table after the first of four days of competition.
After nerves started jangling with two false starts, Lemao ran 10.57, with Mlenga just 0.04sec behind. One of the pre-race favourites, Jamaican Tyreke Wilson, admittedly struggling with a painful ankle after earlier action, was third in 10.65.
Although conditions overhead were anything but clear, Lemao was over the moon. ‘It was a great race to run and I was very excited going into the race.
‘Conditions were tough and raining, but I told myself that I need to stay strong, stay fit and focused and just go.
‘In the semi-final I was disappointed to place second, but I picked myself up. The faulty start played a bit with the mindset – you get frustrated hey, so I just needed to focus.’
Moving on, and Lemao has Friday’s 200m heats to look forward to. ‘I actually enjoy the 200m more, so hopefully that goes as well,’ he said in an understatement of note.
As for silver medallist Mlenga, also touted as one of the favourites, he was just happy to medal.
‘No disappointment, excuses, they beat me fair and square. I’m just happy to medal, the goal here was to medal, gold obviously, but it didn’t go according to plan. Conditions weren’t great and I struggled a bit at the start and then also tensed up a bit at the finish as I saw them coming.’
Admittedly, the SA sprinters’ task was made that much easier due to the absence of powerful nations such as the United States, Great Britain, China and Russia, but that doesn’t take anything away from this dashing duo. They can only race whoever is alongside them in the starting blocks – and that they did just perfectly!
Staying with track events, sprinters Rose Xeyi (12.18) and Joviale Mbisha (12.27) both went through to the 100m semi-finals.
Their times were ninth and 14th respectively, with the impressive Lorraine Martins of Brazil quickest in 11.85sec.
The boys 800m heats saw Ntuthuko Ndimande rocketing to the front, possibly the nerves getting to the better of him, and when push came to shove he had nothing left, ending more than two seconds off the pace in heat four with a time of 1:56.16. Ethiopia’s Melse Nberet was quickest into the final with a 1:52.53 clocking.
The girls’ 3000m final saw Dipuo Mashishi struggling in tough conditions and she ended 12th in 11:06.60. Ethiopia’s Abersh Minsewo won in 9:24.62.
In track events, South Western Districts shot-putter Meike Strydom (pictured right) was in the form of her life, the Hoërskool Outeniqua product producing a best throw of 16.40m to finish fifth.
Earlier, in the day, Tharina van der Walt booked her place in the girls discus final, scheduled for Friday.
She launched a 48.81m heave with her first attempt in the qualifying round, progressing automatically to the medal contest, with 48m being the guarantee of a final.
Before the team left for Kenya, freelance writer Reggie Hufkie spent a few minutes with Van der Walt, a gold medallist for Team SA at last year’s at the AUSC Region 5 Games in Luanda, Angola.
Discus and hammer throw specialist Van der Walt, who made her mark as a senior athlete in 2016, now heads to the World U18 Championships with her feet on the ground and a head mentally prepared for any challenge coming her way.
After the athletics bug bit in Grade 5, there was no looking back for Tharina, who now boasts an impressive 50.85m discus throw and 62.23m South African U18 hammer record personal best.
The 17-year-old Free State-based scholar, who attends Jim Fouche High School, went into the World Championships with high-flying confidence after bagging gold at last year’s AUSC Region 5 Games in Luanda, Angola.
Ranked seventh and eighth in her respective events, a good day in the office is all that is needed to turn things in her favour.
‘It’s been a really long journey, training hard physically and mentally,’ said Van der Walt, who understands the importance of psychology in sport. ‘I think it is really important, because athletics is more a mental game, especially with throws. So if you are mentally tough enough, you can take anything,’ she added.
Having already been exposed to competitions outside South Africa, the South African U18 discus champion should not have any problem competing against the finest U18 throwers in the world, but she has a different approach.
‘I want to go and enjoy the meet, I don’t want to stress about this or that distance, I just really want to go and enjoy and meet all the people. I want to go throw and enjoy.
‘My preparation after SA Youth & Junior champs have been really good in terms of hammer, because I’ve been throwing 65m’s and 66m’s in training, so I’m throwing what the other girls are throwing and I’m really excited about that.’
Included in a team consisting of athletes like Breyton Poole, Sokwakhana Zazini and Retshidisitswe Mlenga, who are ranked No1 in the world in their respective events, she had this to say: ‘I’m really blessed and I know athletics is an individual sport, but you’re going with a team, you sort of got that confidence and I know we’re a strong and fun team, so I know we’ll have a blast.’
Hoping to follow in the footsteps of the 2006 Commonwealth Games Discus throw gold medallist Elizna Naude, it’s fair to say the sport is in good hands.
Van der Walt throwing her way into the discus final in Nairobi on Wednesday.
AUTHOR: Mark Etheridge