KATLEGO PHEEHA Jacques van Zyl, regarded by many experts as the greatest judoka in South African history, has qualified to fight for his country at the 2012 Olympics in London. For those who follow martial arts in South Africa, Van Zyl is a household name. He is ranked number 29 in the world, number one in the country, and is expected to be one of the athletes who will redeem the country’s name after South Africa came back from the 2008 Beijing Olympics having won only one medal – the worst-ever performance by a South African team at the Olympics. Van Zyl has a long and very impressive list of accomplishments. He won his first medal in 2004 at the u/17 International Tournament held in Germany when he got third position. He became a South African cult hero in the martial arts fraternity in April 2011, when he became only the second South African judoka in history to win a gold medal at the Senior African Championship held in Dakar, Senegal when he beat an opponent ranked 13 places higher than him. “In the past I was kind of overawed at just making it that far. This time round there was no question. Losing was not an option. The key to my success was confidence. I wasn’t going to be happy with merely saying ‘I was there’. I didn’t want the crumbs. I wanted to win,” said Van Zyl. He also went on to win a silver medal at the All Africa Games in September 2011. Van Zyl currently trains at Tuks’s High Performance Centre, under the guidance of Bulgarian international coach, Nikola Filipov, but it was his nine-month training scholarship at Japan’s University of Tokai that really matured him as a judoka and harnessed his talent. “It was tough being away from home because I had to leave my friends, my girlfriend, and my mom’s cooking behind,” he said. “I didn’t pick up a great deal of Japanese, but I learnt so much about judo. I absorbed not only technique and skill, but also the culture of respect and discipline that feeds into the sport.” The weight of the nation’s expectation will be on the 21-year-old’s shoulders, as one of the athletes going to the Olympic Games who is expected to win a medal for South Africa. The president of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC), Gideon Sam, referred to Van Zyl when he declared that the medal target for South Africa was 12. Whether Van Zyl will be able to replicate his form on the grand world stage remains to be seen. He will be going up against 385 other athletes in 14 medal events, and some of those athletes will be older and far more experienced than he is. It will by far be his toughest challenge yet, but it is without question he will have the support of his coaches, loved ones, and his countrymen behind him when the judo events kick off in London on 28 July. Photo provided

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