One of the more interesting sideshows in the pre-Olympics merry-go-round concerns the role of women coaches – particularly on the track.
Wayde van Niekerk, the 400m star campaigning in Italy, is coached by Ans Botha in Bloemfontein, and South Africa’s Rio-bound hurdlers – LJ van Zyl, Wenda Nel and Le Roux Hamman – are all coached by Irma Reyneke, herself a former hurdler of note.
Women coaches undoubtedly bring something different to their endeavours, Reyneke believes. They’re more caring for a start, probably a little more inclusive and consensus-based, and less fixated on discipline and boundaries.
“There’s definitely a difference [between women and men] because men, I think, are stricter,” she says. “My style is to have an open environment. I’m a caring coach – a more motherly coach. I want the athletes to be able to talk to me if they need to.”
Hurdling during the 1980s, Reyneke’s bête noire was Myrtle Bothma, who was frustratingly somehow always plunging over the hurdles ahead of her. Despite this, Reyneke qualified for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but a month before the South African team was scheduled to depart for South Korea plans were shelved. Apartheid was still entrenched and the International Olympic Committee forbade the team to travel; Reyneke’s promising career ground to an abrupt halt a year later.
By July 1989 she was married and newly qualified as an accounting, typing and computer science teacher. “I wasn’t going to do all that training for nothing just so I could be told that I couldn’t compete,” she said earlier this week. “And, anyway, at that stage Barcelona was a long way away.”
Throughout the 1990s Reyneke had other priorities – plus a fledgling teaching career to honour and a young family to care for. Athletics – and netball – were never far away, but it was only after a stint teaching in Mahikeng and a posting to Menlo Park High School that the fever began to grip her again. A posting to Affies (Afrikaans Boys’ High School) followed and with it came lessons and wisdom.
“I think what I learned most about my time there was how to deal with the parents and that you can get too close to the athletes. You can’t invite them around as house guests – you have to be more professional, even if it means being a little bit more distant,” she says.
Her move into the world of professional, adult coaching was even more of a jolt. “I think senior athletics is very lonely,” she says. “You really need to be sure that it’s something you want to do. You can’t run for the school any more, or your parents. You have to be sure that you want to run and understand that you are running for yourself.”
For all the loneliness of the one-lap hurdler, Reyneke has brought calm and self-belief to her athletes. She’s credited with giving Van Zyl a boost when he was in a recent slough of despond and she’s able to identify with the less conspicuously gifted because that was once her calling. Twenty years ago she ran in perpetual second – or third – behind Bothma, so she’s able to get a handle on athletes’ fear and insecurities.
“Take someone like Le Roux [Hamman], who comes from a place like Lichtenberg High School, which is far from the centre of athletics. He’s maybe not quite as fast or as talented as LJ. But he works hard and he’s prepared to learn.”
Reyneke says the next five weeks will be the most important in an Olympic athlete’s life. Nel took to bed for three days after returning from the African Championships in Durban last week because of a bout of flu, and training regimes have quietly tapered in the run-up to Rio.
Both Van Zyl and Nel will be competing in the London Diamond League meeting on consecutive days later in the month but after that all they have on their calendars is their arrival in Rio on August 3.
Reyneke follows six days later, full of expectation and anxiety. For fear that her agitation will spread, she doesn’t speak to her athletes in the hour prior to their race, preferring to watch from the sidelines while her charges clamp on their headphones.
“My strategy is to talk to the American coaches,” she admits. “That way I can learn from them and calm my nerves at the same time.”
Although she expects the athletes, swimmers and rowers to bring back a handful of medals, Reyneke cautions against shallow optimism. She says the Olympics are a special case, where personal bests and pre-event form can’t be used as reliable indicators of intent or ambition.
For her, it will be an event she’s been looking forward to for months, simultaneously the journey of a lifetime and a homecoming – given that she missed out on Seoul nearly 30 years ago.