There are two Khotso Mokoenas. Psyched up, tattooed and looking meaner than a pit bull on the track, it’s difficult to believe that this is the same man who likes to hang out alone in his room listening to gospel music, missing his girlfriend back home, and who enjoys ballroom dancing.
But creating that persona on the track is what it takes for Mokoena to be at his best. And that’s what it took to win the country its only medal of the Olympic Games.
”I think I was more focused, just shutting myself away from the outside world and being in my own world inside there doing my job,” explained the 23-year-old, whose 8,24m leap secured him the silver in the long jump.
”Those are two different people — the guy outside of track and field and the crocodile inside of track and field,” he added, referring to his surname, which means crocodile.
”When I compete I am talking to myself and I tell myself to cut out the world and I put myself in the position of the game.
”That’s when I’m at war. I will only see the outside world again after my sixth jump, but at that moment I’m at a military base and I’m at war, I’m hunting.”
It was only after that night that Mokoena could sit in the athletes’ village coffee shop and relax, being able to take in exactly what he had achieved.
”I’m so happy. It’s an overwhelming feeling. I don’t know how to express it.”
Happy, too, were the people of his hometown, Heidelberg, about 100km east of Johannesburg. They welcomed him at the OR Tambo International Airport as a hero and went on to celebrate the night away.
Mokoena, who now trains in Pretoria, took up athletics at primary school, but basketball and ballroom dancing also occupied much of his time back then.
”As a kid I was doing all the events — cross country, 1 000m, shot-put, long jump and high jump. I played basketball and I was also doing ballroom dancing. I was very good at that and did it for almost seven years,” he says.
”It was a lot of fun when I was a kid. I still like to dance now, though. I dance a little bit with my girlfriend; just play the music and do the cha-cha and that kind of stuff, but the samba is my favourite.”
Perhaps it was the flexibility and flair he picked up on the dance floor that helped him excel on the track, as once he got to Nigel High School, Mokoena was identified as an athlete with exceptional potential.
”The first time in my life I met an [athletics] coach was when I got to high school — she was Elna de Beer, who told me I had a good talent and I should start training with her. I did that and took up long jump and high jump as well.”
Mokoena later dropped the high jump (after getting stuck on the same height for two years) and picked up triple jump — the event for which he won the world junior title in 2004. He took world junior silver in the long jump that same year and was selected to travel to the Athens Olympics a few weeks later.
”I was coming back from the World Junior Championships and I told myself I’m going there [Athens] for experience and for fun. I was about to write my prelims so I took my books there. But I shoved the books under the bed and enjoyed the Games. There was no way I could study in that village. I was only 19 years old and I had fun.
”I didn’t know at that stage about how to focus and that kind of thing. I was still fooling around. Those guys I was competing against were huge; they were my role models and I had to compete against them. So I just thought I’m going to grab all the experience I can and go home.”
The experience proved to be invaluable for the South African record-holder, who decided that for two years he would focus solely on the long jump, picking up world indoor gold earlier this year and then returning to the Olympic Games more determined and a lot more mature.
”The difference this time round was that I was more disciplined, I was more dedicated and focused. This is a career to me — this is my job. It’s like a task given to me by the Lord so I just have to use it right and stay motivated and positive. I had dreams of winning a medal at the Olympic Games and becoming a great athlete and inspiring others as well. I had to grow and mature and put myself in the game,” he said.
”I felt it was my night. I actually felt at the beginning of the year that it was going to happen. I just had to stay focused and stay true to myself. I told myself I was going to bring home a medal, whether it was gold, silver or bronze, and it happened.”