Grand Slam-winning tennis star Andy Murray’s mother, Judy, makes some telling points in reflecting on how it feels as a parent when watching your child going through a difficult interview with media.
Feature photo: The then 19-year-old Andy Murray a picture of despair during a press interview, having lost at the 2006 French Open. AP
Most young sportspeople of exceptional talent are not necessarily prepared for the spotlight that comes outside the confines – or relative freedom – of the playing field. It is easy to be caught off-guard by an unexpected enquiry.
After all, as a child you first want to play, actually compete, and – hopefully – win. That is your focus; not being asked questions that can be tricky to answer.
And with the overwhelming focus of social media, those unexpected questions can lead to a long tail of comments by persons who (i) may not even know you and/or the circumstances, and/or (ii) do not have sufficient grasp of the issue to be in a position to comment with authority. But comment… some certainly will.
Of the pressures on a young athlete, there is also the age-gap. Often those persons asking the questions or commenting on the responses are considerably older than the person in question (no pun intended). This can also lead to misunderstandings in what the young person being interviewed actually meant.
This Judy Murray passage from her article in this morning’s Telegraph warrants being stated in full:
“When you step into an interview room, there are so many potential pitfalls. If you’ve won, you’re excited and in danger of feeling so relaxed and happy that something slips out and gets you into trouble.
“It’s tougher, though, when you’ve lost. You’re much more likely to become upset or to bristle at a provocative question – and we all know that anger, tears, feuds and gossip make for good stories.
“The whole situation takes me back to when Andy was young and really struggled with the press-conference environment. He wanted to compete in big stadiums in front of huge crowds, not to be asked about whether his shorts were too big, or whether he should get a haircut, have a shave or smile more often.”
Remember, he was still a teenager; he just wanted to win matches. End of.
Judy, who has a lot of experience in tennis as a player and coach herself, arranged for the then 19-year-old Andy to undergo a course in media training
“The idea was to help Andy deal with the attention, the adverse comments, and know which subjects to avoid. You’ve got a coach at that age, teaching you how to hit your shots and plan a match strategy, but few young players can afford a PR consultant as well.”
English media professional Jonathan Overend gave the young Andy (then 19) the best advice, whilst sharing a taxi, says Judy.
“Jonathan… made some great suggestions on how to handle press conferences and interviews,” says Judy.
“Speak about your tactics, how the weather was affecting play, and what the momentum switches were. Do the press conference on your terms. It was common sense but a real light-bulb moment.
“If you don’t want to bring emotions into the picture; then you can be more analytical. Instead of saying, ‘I’m upset because I lost’, say ‘I missed a chance at this moment’, or ‘I need to go away and work on such-and-such.’
“The other thing we [Judy and Andy] did was to watch press conferences of players who handle them really well.
“Andy Roddick and Roger Federer were two of them. They were so good at taking an awkward question and turning it around so that they could get their message across. They also used humour brilliantly. Yes, they were older, but that’s the best way to learn. Study those who do it well.”
Judy goes on to say that more attention should be focused on this aspect of the recognition that comes with sporting success.
“Being comfortable and confident in front of a microphone is so important. It’s just not the sort of thing that a young athlete is thinking about when they’re trying to establish themselves…”
I didn’t realise quite how distinguished a career and life Sir Andy Murray’s mom has had. Google “Judy Murray tennis” and you will see in Wikipedia that she has done quite a bit. Judy actually wrote the article. Her piece was prompted by the decision of the world’s highest-paid female athlete, Naomi Osaka of tennis fame, to boycott press conferences. If needs be, Google and you will be up-to-speed with this ongoing saga.
Brad Robinson, the Maritzburg College Old Boy and new finance manager at St Charles College, came within millimetres of winning the Bowls South Africa National Men’s Singles title in Cape Town over the weekend.
Feature photo: Brad Robinson in upbeat mood ahead of the singles semi-finals.
This tournament, along with the SA Masters and the SA Interprovincial, is in the top 3 most prestigious events in the country. And in terms of purely Club Bowls, is probably the number 1 event.
Brad, who is a Team Aero player was 18-13 up in the SA singles final on the picturesque Western Province Cricket Club greens.
If he had touched the jack with his next and final shot on that particular end, the necessary 3 points were in the bag to be crowned SA bowls singles champion with a 21-13 victory.
When approached by KZN10.com a few hours ago as to how close he got with that final shot, Brad smiled ruefully: “Jono I had to touch the jack for 3 and just missed by a few millimetres.”
Brad’s opponent, Niksa Benguric from Gauteng North bowls province, came back into this tensest of title showdowns… and the scores were locked at 20-20.
“Niksa saved game a few ends before the end,” says Brad, who predominantly plays out of Lynwood Bowling Club in Pietermaritzburg and represents the KZN Inland province.
“Then on that last head I narrowly missed the jack to win the final,” says Brad, who was also the runner-up in the 2017 SA National Men’s Singles final.
And the outcome was that Niksa won the SA National Men’s Singles title and gold medal on a 21-20 final scoreline with Brad taking the silver.
Must have been pretty tight out there, Brad?
“Yes Jono, it certainly was a tense game, yet played in a great spirit between old friends. I was relatively calm throughout and was backing myself all the way – even with the last bowl.
“One thing I stand by is that you have to trust your ability,” says Brad, who is a chartered accountant and previously a senior manager at Pricewaterhouse Coopers before taking up his new position at St Charles College.
Brad participated in 3 disciplines at Nationals in Cape Town, namely the SA Fours, the SA Pairs and the SA Singles – and it was most definitely a case of near-misses across the board for this Maritzburg College Old Boy of the Class of 2000 .
“In the SA Fours I played with Calvin Hollis [of Maritzburg Bowling Club] and Gerry Baker and Prince Neluonde [of Bryanston Sports Club in Johannesburg].
“We lost in the quarter-finals by 1 shot with the last bowl.”
In the Pairs, again playing alongside Calvin Hollis – a Glenwood Old Boy and owner of the popular Kick & Whistle Family Restaurant and Sports Bar in the KZN capital – the two good friends lost on an extra end in the last 16.
So near, yet so…
You can be sure that Brad will not be giving up his quest for gold anytime soon.
Take a look at this previous KZN10.com feature on Brad.
9 June 2020 – Born and raised in Westville, Robbie Koenig turned a love for tennis into a pro career and when that was over he took his connection with the sport to even greater heights by becoming one of the world’s leading tennis commentators. KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan chatted with him recently.
As a young sportsman at Berea West Senior Primary school, Robbie also showed talent in cricket and was good enough to represent Natal B as “a bit of an all-rounder, jack-of-all-trades, but master of none.” But tennis was the sport he excelled in and when he moved on to Westville Boys’ High, which his brother had also attended, he became part of a remarkable hotbed of talent.
“Westville was number one in the country,” Robbie recalled. “I’ll tell you the team that won the national schools championships. It was the top four players in the team, playing singles and doubles. It was me; Ellis Ferreira, a Grand Slam champion in doubles; Roger Mills, who went on to play College tennis in the states; and Kirk Haygarth, who went on to play on the Tour as well. Myles Wakefield might have been there already. Maybe it was six guys. Myles went on to a good career on the Tour too.
“Westville in those days and Natal, in particular, were unbelievable. I remember we played one of the Joburg schools in Joburg, and the winners got a trip overseas.
“We had such a rich history. Going back a number of years, there were people like Royce Deppe, Grant Adams, and Bruce Griffith.”
The Westville 1st tennis team of 1988 included three players who would go on to play the game professionally: Robbie Koenig, Myles Wakefield and Kirk Haygarth.
“School was just a happy place for me,” he said. “The environment at Westville was just so positive. You had people like [future Headmaster] Trevor Hall, who was the Deputy Head when I was there. He taught me some accounting. Again, an ultra-positive guy, so supportive of the tennis environment, because he was a former tennis player.
“Overall, my over-riding feeling was that it provided such a supportive framework. Whether you were excelling in academics or sport, you were given the same credit. Doing well at tennis, I was made to feel as good as the guy who was dux of the school. It is testimony to the teachers that were there, so many good people. They knew people skills.”
From an early age, Robbie was coached by John Yuill, who had ranked as high as 52nd in singles in the world during his career. “He was far and away the most instrumental influence in my career,” Robbie acknowledged.” John’s outstanding ability as an exponent of the serve and volley game would later help Robbie become a four-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, three times in mixed doubles and once in men’s doubles.
An incredibly talented squad of youngsters until the tutelage of Yuill also helped Robbie develop his game further. Then there was his uncle Guy (Gaetan) Koenig, who had represented South Africa in the Davis Cup. He served as an inspiration.
In club tennis, he learnt lessons playing mixed doubles that would later prove invaluable. “I remember playing mixed league on the weekends at Westville Tennis Club when I was 15, 16 years old. Ladies of a certain age, around 45, didn’t move that well, so I had to learn how to cover 90 percent of the tennis court,” he said.
“You become unbelievably good at reading so much more. You learn how to help your partner and close down the gaps on the doubles court, things that a lot of other people maybe don’t learn. Playing much more structured league, like men’s doubles, you don’t have to worry about your other half of the court because that person has got it covered.
“I’ll tell you what, Barbie Walker made me do a lot of covering when I was playing at Westville. I probably have got to thank her for a couple of my mixed doubles semi-finals at the Grand Slams as a result of that.”
Anyone who has heard Robbie commentating on tennis will know of him as a tremendously enthusiastic and positive person. Those traits come from his dad, he explained: “My dad was one of the most outgoing, positive people to be around. I think I inherited a lot of that from him, a love for life and my enthusiasm. People like to be around me because of my positive energy. I definitely got that from him.”
Wimbledon 2017: Robbie Koenig with one of his former doubles’ partners, John-Laffnie de Jager; Wayne Ferreira, who was part of the same generation of young South African tennis talent; and David Friedland.
As a rising talent in a generation of top South African youngsters, Robbie received offers from Pepperdine University and the University of Miami, but a decision by Tennis South Africa to establish an Elite Squad to go along with the previously formed Super Squad, which included players like Wayne Ferreira and Marcos Ondruska, meant Robbie chose to forgo the university route.
The support from the national federation lasted 18 months and helped get him into the pro ranks. Seeing players like Ferreira and Ondruska (a player he regularly beat as a junior) perform well at Wimbledon and the French Open respectively, also provided inspiration that he could make it as a professional.
Reaching that level, though, took a lot of hard work because, Robbie admitted, he was not one of the most talented of the young South Africans. Kevin Ullyett, who became a three-time Grand Slam champion in doubles, described him as a never-say-die, fight-for-every point type of player on court, which Robbie appreciated.
“That’s awesome to hear that coming from a guy who had the career he had. But I needed to be the toughest fighter because I didn’t have the talent he had. I’ve always had a great work ethic and good discipline, but that was because I didn’t have the talent of guys like Ellis Ferreira and Ully, especially. He was unbelievably talented.”
On the ATP Tour, Robbie enjoyed some success in singles, but quite early on in his career he had to deal with knee problems. As a smaller player – five-foot eight and no more than 70 kilograms at his heaviest – his body was not prepared for the demands of life as a pro. He had to endure two knee operations, which sidelined him for 13 months.
“I came back after that a lot smarter,” he said. “I used to do a lot more bike work, a lot more non-impact stuff. I wish I had known that when I was 16.
He also decided to focus on doubles which, with the benefit of hindsight, he wished he had done a little earlier in his career. John Yuill’s coaching and days spent playing mixed doubles at the Westville Tennis Club were about to pay off. The fact that a lot of South African tennis was played at altitude in Johannesburg was another plus, he added.
“Many of us grew up playing or competing at high altitude, which almost made it a necessity to be able to serve and volley. That became an important part of your game and you learnt that skill from a young age. Obviously that translates so well onto the doubles tour.”
Furthermore, in doubles one had the advantage of being able to share the load with a partner, whether in victory or defeat, and the switch proved to be an easy one.
The world-renowned tennis commentator with his former doubles’ partner and former South African Davis Cup captain John-Laffnie de Jager.
“When I teamed up with John-Laffnie (de Jager), I couldn’t believe how easily I made the transition to top level doubles. It came very quickly. The first big tournament we played together was the US Open. We qualified there and made the quarter-finals.
“That was my decision to give up on my singles, really, because in one week at the US Open I made more money than I had made in the previous eight months playing singles.”
Robbie went on to make four Grand Slam semi-finals in his career, one in men’s doubles and the other three in mixed doubles.
Early on, there was a tendency to look to partner with South Africans. Later on, it was about finding players whose games melded with his, which created opportunities to win, Robbie said.
“I always felt if I had a decent partner alongside me I could do some serious damage. For a while, I think in some of the partnerships I had I was the slightly better player, but I needed someone who was better than me. When I played with guys who were better than me, I found it easy to win.”
Robbie achieved his biggest successes in mixed doubles, teaming up with the Belgian, Els Callens. He remembered teaming up with Annabel Ellwood, an Australian, and playing Els and her South African partner Chris Haggard at Wimbledon one year. They won, but he thought to himself that he and Els would make a good team.
“I bugged her for about a year or two [to play with me]. At this stage she must have been a top 20, if not top 10, player in women’s doubles. Eventually, she said ‘Okay, Robbie, let’s play’.
“It was easy to win with her. We beat some good teams. I remember beating Martina Navratilova and Leander Paes at the US Open. We made the semis there, the semis in Oz, the semis at Wimbledon in mixed. I wish she had stuck around a bit longer, or I had got hold of her a little earlier, because her game fitted perfectly with mine.”
One of his most memorable matches was the aforementioned quarterfinal with John-Laffnie de Jager at the US Open because the victory made a telling difference in his life.
“In the quarterfinals, we played Piet Norval and Neil Broad. They were top dogs at the time. The difference between losing in the quarters and losing in the semis was that the prize money had started to double by then.
“My wife was pregnant and I knew if we won this quarterfinal match and made it to the semis of the US Open we would have more than enough cash to put down a substantial deposit on my place in London. I remember being pretty nervous going into the match.
It was also played before a clash between Andre Agassi and Karol Kucera, which had to be completed, with their contest locked at two sets-all on Louis Armstrong Stadium.
“They always put a match before a match that needs to be completed,” Robbie explained. “We walk into the stadium, 8 000 people, a full house! They weren’t there to see us, they were there to see the end of the Agassi match, but everybody wanted to get there early and make sure they had a seat.
“We played a really good match in a hostile environment. We ended up winning it. It was a great match, we played unbelievably well and ran away with it in the end [winning 5-7, 6-4, 6-2].
“That was one of the coolest matches I ever played because I remember the relief when we were winning, thinking I’m going to buy that apartment in London now.
“It carried so much significance, with my wife being pregnant and now we were going to move in there. I could finally afford my own place, because we had been sharing houses in London with other people. I think from a significance point of view, making my first semi-finals at a major, it was big at the time. Obviously winning titles was big, but that’s the one that sticks in my mind a lot.”
Halfway through his final season on tour, he turned his focus to coaching. Mahesh Bhupathi, then ranked number one in doubles in the world, asked him to be his doubles’ coach and Wesley Moodie asked him to be his singles’ coach. “Basically, I had two people in my stable, so I could retire from tennis, knowing that I had a gig.”
The timing was good. Robbie had endured a frustrating time with the chopping and changing of his doubles’ partners. He had partnered with Thomas Johannson, the Australian Open doubles’ champion, but fate stepped in to bring about a change his plan when Johannson suffered an injury from a mishit ball, which struck him in an eye and put him out of tennis for half a year.
“That would have been my doubles partner, which left me without anybody to get into the events with. It’s amazing how fate turned out. I would have been relying on Thomas to get into tournaments and the next thing you know the guy is injured for the next six months. Who knows how the chain of events thereafter would have unfolded,” Robbie said.
Fate intervened again shortly after that when Robbie had a serendipitous meeting. “I was living in the UK. I’ve got an apartment just across the road from Wimbledon. It just happened that the guy two driveways up from me was a guy named Jason Goodall.
Robbie and Jason Goodall just before commentating on the Masters 1000 final in Toronto in 2014 between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roger Federer.
“I am walking to Southfields Tube Station, Jason is walking back. We meet each other at the corner. We were pushing our prams and I was with my wife and kid. Jason and I hadn’t seen each other for a while. I knew him vaguely.
“He stops me and asks me ‘Hey Robbie, how is it going? Long time, no see. What are you doing here?’ He said he lived just up the road. I said me too. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was coaching Mahesh and Wesley. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was working for a company, ATP Media, and he was doing some commentary on the Masters 1000 events.
“I asked who he did it with and he said John Barrett (a Wimbledon commentator for almost three decades). He asked if it was something I would ever be interested in doing. I said not really. I said I had a good coaching gig. He said ‘If you ever want to get into it, or try it out, you’re going to be at these tournaments anyway, here’s my number. Get in touch if you want to give it a go.”
Later, at tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami, Robbie realised why Jason had invited him to give commentary a go. “At that stage there were only three commentators. There were the two of them and there was this guy from the States and the workload was insane.” And John Barrett, then about 80 years of age, was about to retire.
In Indian Wells, after finishing training one day, Robbie went to see Jason. He helped with commentary for a set or two. “It was fun. I wasn’t looking for a job, but I was very natural. Two days later, the same thing happens. I go in for a set here or there. The same thing happens in Miami and the same thing happens in Hamburg, when that was a Masters 1000 tournament. I would do a couple of sets in a row, but didn’t think anything of it.”
Robbie showing Andrew Rueb, a former doubles’ partner and current coach of the Harvard men’s tennis team, the booth at the ATP World Tour finals in London in 2014.
But then, after Wimbledon, Wesley Moodie decided he no longer wanted to work with Robbie. “Suddenly, I am only getting 50 percent of my income, because I was only working with Mahesh. That’s when I realised how fickle a coach/player relationship could be. You don’t have any contracts. When a guy says he doesn’t want to work with you anymore, you’re kind of left in limbo. It was right after that happened that I thought hang on, this commentating gig might be a nice long-term security thing for me.”
In Cincinnati, Robbie did some more commentary work and was then approached by the Head of Production with an offer for a full time job the following year. After a little back and forth, terms were agreed and the stage was set for the next stage of his career. “The bonus was I going to get paid in pounds and they paid for all your expenses,” Robbie said.
“I started in 2007 in Indian Wells. Those were the early days of ATP Media, the world feed. The first couple of years were brutal, just three commentators working 10 hour days. You basically did two sets on, one set off, the whole day. The beauty about that is that I learnt all the skills very quickly. I learnt how to do colour commentary and I also learnt how to do the lead. If I had joined an international company, like ESPN, I would have only been doing the colour commentary.
“My biggest asset was that I had always had a very good mentality on how to see a tennis match. That was my greatest strength, the ability to analyse a tennis match. I think that came across well to the viewers from early on, and certainly to the guys in the production team. My natural analysis of the match was on point. I was reasonably articulate. I didn’t have a funny accent. I had a nice neutral accent, which was for a worldwide audience, and Jason and I bounced off of each other very well.”
Since then, it has been a fulfilling journey for the Westville old boy. Last year, he joined Amazon Prime, which has taken over tennis in the United Kingdom from Sky Sports.
“You won’t hear me as much now in South Africa,” he said. “You’ll hear me at the majors, except the French I don’t do. I do the world feed for three of the majors. Now for the ATP 1000s and 500s, all of them I do for Amazon Prime in the UK. They’ve got the men’s and women’s rights now. Last year, they signed a four or five year deal for the ATP rights, and now they’ve got the women on board, so it is all on one platform.”
As a commentator, two matches have stood out as being very significant to Robbie personally: “The 2017 Australian Open final because, remember, Federer was 3-1 down in the fifth, he had just got broken. I put off my microphone and I looked at my co-commentators and I said ‘I can’t believe it, Nadal’s got him again.
“It looked like Rafa was going on to win it and what happens? Roger wins five straight games to win the match. It was incredible. The drama in that match was off the charts. Roger had just come back from injury and the atmosphere was mind-blowing. That was right up there, if you talk about big matches.
As a commentator, calling the 2017 Australian Open final between two of the all-time greats, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, was an incredible experience for Robbie Koenig as he witnessed the Swiss maestro capture his 18th Grand Slam title five years after his 17th. (Photo: YouTube)
“The other one, I did for radio at Wimbledon was when Andy Murray won Wimbledon for the first time. He beat Novak Djokovic in the final. It had special meaning for me.
“I first came across Andy when he was 15 and Chris Haggard and I played doubles against him at Nottingham, which was one of the warm-up tournaments before Wimbledon. We played this wildcard pair, and he was half of that team, and I could not believe how well this kid returned serve. Chris was a lefty and had a nasty lefty serve on grass. In the first five games, this kid was incredible. If I crossed, he went down my line. If I didn’t cross, he returned it on Chris’ shoelaces. We were staring at him, trying to intimidate him.
“Anyway, we ended up playing everything to his partner, Martin Lee, who we both knew well. He eventually crumbled. This 15-year-old kid, Andy Murray, was as steely as could be.
“After the match, he walked over to his mom and his mom put her arm around him. I was speaking to my family and I walked over to them. I said ‘this kid of yours, if you’re the mother, he’s fantastic, an unbelievable talent’. Of course, it was Judy [Murray]. She said ‘Thanks very much, Robbie’. I said ‘If he just keeps it up, this kid is going to be a proper talent and I hope he can go on to do good things because he’s a proper player.’ Andy was standing there.”
Robbie kept following Andy Murray’s career and that included seeing him make a couple of Grand Slam finals before being beaten at the final hurdle each time.
“Eventually, he wins at Wimbledon. I remember – this is what made it so cool – I didn’t know for sure if I was going to be calling the final or not, because there is a big team of people. After he won his quarter-final match, I was lying in my bed one evening and I thought if I get to call the final what am I going to say if he wins? Because I often script. I have two scripts, one for each player in the finals, if they win. I want to do it justice.
“Something came to me that evening that Murray was going to win, and I had better have a good line when he wins because I had watched his journey.
“The words that I used were something to the effect that ‘There will be tears in Dunblane today, but they won’t be tears of sadness. They will be tears of joy because one of their own has won the greatest title our sport has to offer, and in doing so he has beaten the best player on the planet, Novak Djokovic’.
“That was my reference to the sadness that had gone down in Dunblane, because Andy was part of that shooting (16 children and one teacher shot dead and 15 others injured by Thomas Hamilton in March 1996).
“He was at that school. He wasn’t in the gym. He was in the next class to be in that gymnasium where that guy shot everybody. His mother had given lifts to the guy who had opened fire on the kids at the school. So, it was a subtle reference to that. It came to me in that moment.
Commentating on Andy Murray’s victory over Novak Djokovic in the 2013 Wimbledon final was an emotional experience for Robbie Koenig because of his connection with the British star. (Photo: YouTube)
“Andy won it, and that feeling that I had when he won makes me emotional even now when I think about it. I watched his whole journey take place, and I was part of it. I remember the Head of Production said to me that was one of the best closing lines for a match that he had ever heard. It was inspired in that one moment, lying in my bed at night. That’s why that sticks with me.”
A question he has often been asked is how he copes with being the father to three children and having to spend a lot of time far away from home. It turns out, it’s not an issue. In fact, if anything, it’s been a good thing.
“The big difference is that it is all my kids have ever known. It’s completely normal for Dad to come and go. My wife, Giselle, has been amazing.
“You still miss out on stuff, but I have often said I probably get to spend more time with my kids than a lot of parents who work a normal job, because when I am home I am free. I don’t have any work when I am here.
“I am at work 24 weeks a year. I always remind people I have 28 weeks’ holiday. How many people have 28 weeks’ holiday? That’s how you have got to think of it.”
He might spend a lot of time away from home, but Robbie Koenig gets to spend more time with his family than most fathers.
Travel, too, is not a chore. “There is nothing to complain about,” Robbie said. “Working for Amazon, you fly. What a company to work for, unbelievable. You’re flying business class everywhere.
“I’m watching the most golden generation of tennis and talking about it on a daily basis. I’ve got to visit some of the most beautiful cities in the world. If I am complaining about my job, I need a reality check. That’s the thing: I am so blessed to do what I do. I know very few people who absolutely love their job. I count my blessings every day. I get to do something and be involved in this generation of the Big Three.
“Now, my kids are a bit older. The family is starting to travel a bit more with me. We all went to Wimbledon last year, which was super-cool. We went down to Australia and New Zealand at the start of the year. They came to the ATP Cup for a few days before heading home.
“Hopefully I can keep it going for a few more years and my kids can get to see the world at the same time as me.”
4 June 2020 – Born in Zimbabwe, Kevin Ullyett moved to South Africa at a young age. He attended Atholton Primary School in Umhlanga Rocks before moving on to Beachwood (which less than a year after he finished there amalgamated with Northlands and became Northwood) for high school. At the beginning of his matric year, he left school to pursue a career as a professional tennis player. It proved to be an excellent decision. He spent 18 years on tour, winning 34 doubles titles in total, including three Grand Slams.
Speaking with KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan, he said sport was an important part of life in the Ullyett household. Kevin’s dad, Robert, played Currie Cup cricket for Rhodesia and also represented the country in hockey at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. His older brother, Clive, was also a good tennis player who would go on to play professionally, but without achieving similar success to Kevin.
From an early age, the boys were subjected to an active lifestyle and from the latter days of his junior school career that meant early morning tennis coaching for Kevin, between 05:30 and 06:30, under the tutelage of Peter Waters. Then it was off to catch a bus to school at 07:00.
Kearnsey, Northwood share spoils in cracking season-opener
Peter Waters coached Kevin from a young age. He eventually retired in mid-2019 after a coaching career that lasted 55 years.
“As I started putting in the hours,” he recalled, “I started having some decent results and realised I liked it more than the other sports, I suppose.”
Becoming a top junior player meant his holidays were often filled with tournaments. “Every holiday, from under-12, about standard five, I would go to Johannesburg, because it’s always been the place where the tournaments were held. Then, at the end of the year, there were the East London and Port Elizabeth Sugar Circuit events. From under-12 through to under-18, I did that every year.”
Tennis at Beachwood was strong. Practices took place a couple of times a week and then there were matches, too. Westville Boys’ High, at that time, was also exceptionally strong and Kevin often played against those players, who included, among others, Robbie Koenig, Ellis Ferreira, Grant Adams, Kirk Haygarth and Myles Wakefield, all of whom went on to successful professional careers.
Robbie Koenig, who has become a world-renowned tennis commentator, was a good friend and rival as they grew up. “Robbie and I played so much junior tennis together. We had such good battles throughout our junior career, and we would go and practice together on weekends, all day. He was quite instrumental in my game, because he was probably the best competitor out of all the juniors here, like a Pit bull, never-give-up kind of attitude. He broke my heart so often in the juniors. It toughened me up a lot. We spent so much time together. It was good.”
While Robbie might have broken Kevin’s heart at times, Robbie wasn’t having any of it when discussing Kevin. “Don’t take his BS,” he said with a laugh. “When it really mattered he got one over me in the seniors, when there was big money up for grabs. Over the course of his career, he cost me a boatload of money on the Pro Tour.”
Remembering his time at Beachwood, Kevin said: “We had a really good Headmaster, Mike Ellis, when I was there. Back in those days, there was a lot of structure and quite a lot of discipline. Nowadays, I think the kids get away with murder, but back then there was no stepping out of line. Mike Ellis went on to become a politician for the DA and Mr Robinson, the Vice-Head, stepped in. That structure and discipline helped me in tennis. My dad also got us to focus on a hard work ethic.”
The teachers, too, were really good, he said, and the competition provided by other nearby schools, like Glenwood and Northlands, helped keep the standards high.
At the Inter-provincial Schools Tennis Tournament in Bloemfontein, with Damian Mustard (Pinetown), Garth Furmidge (Michaelhouse), Ryan Fitzwilliam (Northlands), Roger Mills (Westville), Kevin Ullyett (Beachwood), Clint Lishman (Grosvenor), teacher Gary Coombe (Beachwood) and Kirk Haygarth (Westville).
When Kevin reached matric one of the pivotal moments of his life occurred three weeks into the first term. He explained: “During that time, tennis in South Africa was at a stage where there were a lot of local events, challengers and satellites, where locals were getting wildcards, guys like Wayne Ferreira and Marcos Ondruska.
“There were eight to 10 guys who were getting world rankings points and doing really well in those tournaments. They were all leaving school, so I convinced my dad (I don’t know how) that I should leave school as well.
“I completed my schooling through correspondence and split it over two years, so that I could play tennis and travel to all of the events around the country, while I was still under-18. I played against all the Defence Force guys who were doing their national service. That’s what I convinced my dad about and he bought into it.”
Nowadays, without the tournaments that existed back then, it is so much harder for South Africans to make it onto the ATP World Tour, but at that time the satellite and challenger events drew players from overseas. And the high altitude of Johannesburg favoured the local players, Kevin recalled.
“The conditions in Joburg were quite different and the ball flew around. They weren’t used to that. Living here, it was a great opportunity for the young guys, who were getting wildcard opportunities, to get some scalps of the guys who were coming over and ranked 200-300 in the world. That was a good springboard, but it is much harder now starting out, because you have to fly to other countries and play in tough conditions to fight for points.
Hanging out with visiting players for a Challenger event in Durban. That’s Ryan Fitzwilliam (Northlands) on the right, opposite Kevin, in front.
“If you did well in those tournaments back then, you could pick up 10 or 30 points in a Challenger and ramp up your ranking. It was easier, but now you have to get out there, find some places you can get in. There are also more people playing, and it takes cash to travel now. We were lucky back then that the South African Tennis Federation assisted a lot of the juniors to get into tournaments.”
The fact that a group of talented juniors, many of them from KwaZulu-Natal, were emerging at the same time helped them make the jump into the professional ranks. “That’s key,” Kevin said. “That’s why I think the Spanish and the French have done so well. They’ve had 15 to 20 guys all at once [coming through].
“You don’t to want to lose to the one guy and he makes some points, and you want to match him. It’s a good rivalry to have and we had that, with about six to eight guys in Natal, and then there were the Joburg guys, so there was a good pool of kids. We had the numbers, but I feel they have now dwindled a little and it’s difficult to get that now.”
Support from the national tennis federation also played a crucial role, with a Super Squad, under the coaching of Glenwood old boy Keith Diepraam, featuring Wayne Ferreira, Marcos Ondruska and Grant Stafford, while just below them was the Elite Squad, which included Kevin. It was coached by Kobus Botha.
“Those couple of years, 1991-1994, with Kobus really helped me, especially mentally,” Kevin said. “He was really good on the mental side of competing and we worked terribly hard, and that’s what gave me a good springboard. Peter Waters gave me my whole life as a kid but, when I left Durban and went to Joburg and overseas, Kobus was the one that pushed me to get onto the circuit and to play bigger events.
Coach Kobus Botha (left) played a very important role as Kevin transitioned to life as a professional tennis player.
“In 1995, Kevin Curren coached and mentored me, which was also a key stage in my career. He taught me how to think more of the ‘bigger picture’ and play the right way and not be results/cash-driven, which took some pressure off of me. He encouraged and helped me to put on five kilograms with the help of a trainer in Austin, Texas, to try add more pace on shots and move more explosively. I was very fortunate to have someone like Kevin Curren, who had competed at the highest of levels of the game, guiding me.”
Kevin enjoyed some success as a singles player, with his ranking settling in between 100 and 300 in the world from the time he was 19 years of age. But there was a problem: clay courts. “I was more of a classical player, playing on fast courts. I had to bypass the whole clay season because I couldn’t actually move on the stuff. My results were too inconsistent to keep my ranking at 100 or below on a regular basis. I had to rely on a couple of good weeks every year, and it showed in my singles rankings.”
Some of the older pros, who were playing doubles, suggested to him that he should focus on doubles. He made the decision to follow that path in 2000, strangely enough after his best year in singles in 1999.
“It takes a lot of hard work to stay high up in singles. It was a career decision to hang up my racquet and do something else or to give doubles a crack, like all the other guys were doing, and see what happens. It turned out that I had eight really good years of doubles.
With the benefit of hindsight, he admitted: “I should have done that earlier. I felt I still had something to offer in singles, but the [good] results were too intermittent.”
Young and with a full head of hair, practicing to make it to the top.
Doubles also had the benefit of having a partner. “The singles is more cut-throat,” Kevin said. “In doubles, it’s nice to play as a team. You can practice together. It’s a lot more beneficial. If you just play singles, it can be quite solitary. The doubles’ players generally get on really well. There is a lot of camaraderie.”
Finding the right partner is important, though, especially with matches often being decided by small details and margins. He explained: “It’s like trying to find a girlfriend. What was important to me was finding someone to fit my style of play. I was decent at the net, but I wasn’t as consistent at returning, so I needed someone who could return really well. That’s what I looked for. If saw someone who was solid on returns, those were the people I would target.
“You just have to go up and ask. You just say why don’t we try a few weeks and the worst they can say is no. You try it and work, and then you commit to play the next year, and then you’ve got to give the bad news to your current partner that you’re breaking up with them, and it happens in reverse. Your partner might tell you they’re moving on, which is fine. It’s a career decision. I think everyone understands that. You’ve got to look after number one, unfortunately.”
His doubles exploits started with Pietie Norval, who had partnered Wayne Ferreira to an Olympic silver medal in Barcelona in 1992. “We were mates and we spent a lot of time together in London, and we did well for a couple of years. It was just people I knew,” Kevin said.
Despite leaving Zimbabwe at an early age, the country came to play a role in Kevin’s tennis career and the Black family, which produced professional players Byron, Wayne and Cara, were a big part of it.
Looking back, Kevin said: “We left Zimbabwe pretty early. I remember Wayne, we were a similar age, playing juniors at under-eights. Then I didn’t see him for my whole junior career, but bumped into him again as we were all turning pro.
He and Wayne then formed a very successful doubles partnership, including teaming up to play Davis Cup for Zimbabwe. Their tie against the USA in Harare in 2000 is a match that Kevin reckons was the most memorable of his career.
“It was at the Sports Centre, which had a corrugated iron roof, and we had 5 000 people banging drums in between every point. It sounded like a festival. The Americans included Andre Agassi and John McEnroe was the captain. It was phenomenal. We had a packed Harare crowd and we managed to win 7-5 in the fifth set [against Rick Leach and Alex O’Brien]. That was probably the greatest moment and most intense match I was a part of.” The victory gave Zimbabwe a shock 2-1 lead over the USA, but they were unable to hold on to it and eventually went down 2-3 after a tremendous battle.
Playing in the Davis Cup brought a different dynamic to competition and it was something that Kevin enjoyed. “It was amazing. Our Davis Cup matches in Zim were always a nice week back there. We practiced hard and the crowds were really vocal and it was fun. We would have a really good time. We didn’t really put that much pressure on ourselves. It was really something to play in a team event for your country.”
In 2001, Kevin and Wayne Black claimed a major title, the first for both of them, when they landed the US Open crown with a 7-6 (11-9), 2-6, 6-3 victory over the American duo of Donald Johnson and Jared Palmer in the title-decider.
New York: Kevin Ullyett and Wayne Black celebrate victory in the 2001 US Open. It happened just two days before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers.
Remembering what it took to get there, Kevin said: “We would often get to the quarters or semis, one or two matches away, and it builds up a lot of pressure. In losing a few heart-breakers, you learn some hard lessons and you feel terrible afterwards. But two, three, four years down the line, you get in a similar situation again and the experience from those hard knocks before is valuable.
“You also see mental coaches and follow those kinds of processes to try and put yourself in that situation again and see what and how you would do things differently. That all goes into a mixing pot to improve yourself. Once you got yourself into a similar position again, you were ready.”
The following year, in 2002, Kevin captured another Grand Slam title, teaming up with Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia to takes the honours at the Australian Open. That was an unexpected result.
He recalled: “It was by chance that I played with Daniela. Her coach was a good friend of mine, Nigel Sears, and we were in Cape Town. We used to go there every year before the Australian Open, and she would fly from Europe to practice with him there. I was looking for hits and would hit with her. We put in some practice sessions and just said let’s play some mixed doubles. Our first tournament we played in we won and it was the Australian Open, so it was perfect!”
Kevin and Daniela Hantuchova lift the trophy after claiming the Australian Open mixed doubles title with a convincing 6-3, 6-2 win over the Argentinian pair of Paola Suarez and Gastón Etlis in the final.
His third and final Grand Slam win came in 2005 at the Australian Open when he and Wayne Black beat the most successful doubles team in history, the twins, Bob and Mike Bryan, 6-4, 6-4.
“I always had a dream of winning a Grand Slam. But, if I am honest with myself, I never really thought I would,” Kevin said. “It didn’t feel like we were good enough at one stage, but things started to happen. The next thing we had a Grand Slam title to our name and from there the confidence got really big. Once you’ve achieved that kind of milestone you want to win more. It was a surprise in a way.”
Apart from the three Grand Slam wins, he also made the Wimbledon final in 2008, partnering Jonas Björkman, along with six further semi-finals and 12 appearances in the quarters of the Grand Slams.
In mixed doubles, he made the Wimbledon final with Daniela Hantuchova in 2002 and made it to the semis with her in 2003. Two years later, he teamed up with former South African, Liezel Huber (now an American citizen), to reach the Wimbledon semis once again. That same year, he and Huber were beaten in the Australian Open final.
On the top rung of the ATP World Tour, Masters 1000 events, he recorded wins in Miami and Hamburg in 2004, in the Canada Open in Montreal in 2005, Hamburg again in 2006, and Paris in 2008. The first three titles were with Wayne Black, who retired after the 2005 season, while the latter two were with Paul Hanley (Aus) and Jonas Björkman (Swe). There were eight further finals appearances, 13 semi-final slots, and 14 appearances in the quarter-finals.
Kevin Ullyett and his long-time doubles’ partner Wayne Black won the Masters 1000 title in Miami in 2004.
During the course of his career, he amassed over 500 victories and was ranked as high as fourth in the world in doubles.
As a fan of the game, he selected two matches as the best he has ever witnessed and both of them were singles finals at Wimbledon: the 1980 final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, which Borg edged 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18) and 8-6, and the 2008 final, an incredible shot-making classic, between Roger Federer and Rafael Nafal which the Spaniard won 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10) and 9-7.
In 2004, Kevin married Marylou in Hillcrest. In 2005, their first child, Jemima, was born. As a top sportsman travelling the world, with a child in tow, life had become more complicated.
He explained: “After 9/11 airline travel became so much more difficult, especially travelling with a kid and prams. You would go the airport for a 14:00 flight out of New York and you would get there at 11:00 to deal with the stringent security. It was becoming so tedious, so you really had to work hard on your schedule, and you needed a good travel agent to make sure that you were not flying via this place, via that place, and another.”
Inevitably, Kevin began considering the next step in his life, the one after tennis. Finally, after he made the decision to retire, he ended his career at the 2010 South African Open, partnering Wesley Moodie in the doubles.
“At that stage I was 36 and the travel was getting tough. I was a little over-cooked by then. I had been on tour for 18 years. It was quite a difficult decision, but in hindsight sometimes you get a bit clouded by the travel and losing some matches. That life is actually phenomenal.
“You get into the ‘real world’ and you realise how good playing tennis and making a living is. You’ve got your own time, you’re outside, playing a sport you love, and you’re getting paid.
“Just the kids and the travelling and, maybe, being away from them led me to think about doing something else. By default I fell into property development through my brother-in-law and a friend back in South Africa, just as I was trying to figure out what I was going to do for the next 20 to 30 years of my life.”
For a while, he and his young family lived in London following his retirement, and soon another son, Nicholas, was born. They then made a decision to return to South Africa and a home on the north coast. Back in South Africa, Florence, his fourth child, became the only one of his children to be born in South Africa.
Now, with four children – Jemima, Sebastian, Nicholas and Florence – it’s a very different life, revolving around family and plenty of time spent at home. There is time, too, for golf and he’s excelled there, winning the SuperSport Shootout in 2015 and multiple Umhlali Club strokeplay titles.
Travel is no longer an unavoidable part of his life. And Kevin’s very happily enjoying the change.
20 May 2020 – When Chad le Clos blazed his way to multiple swimming records in his time at Westville Boys’ High it was reasonable to expect that they would last many decades. Yet, only a decade later, incredibly, many of his records are falling to grade 10 learner Luca Holtzhausen, writes KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan.
A chat with Luca at the school, just before it closed due to Covid-19, suggested that there could be significantly more to come from the 16-year-old standout when, while discussing the demands of training, he admitted: “I will say that towards the end of last year I told myself that this is what I want to do and nothing else. Now that I have matured a bit, I have put my head down and said this is the time to really graft and really do well one day, maybe win at the Olympics.”
A young man who is bettering an Olympic champion’s records might have a long way to go to climb onto the top step of the Olympic podium, but he is on the right path.
The best boys’ school swimming team in South Africa
Westville dominate Durban and District Gala
Luca attended Kloof Junior Primary and it was during that time that Candice Crafford, a former Olympic swimmer, saw him in action and recognised his potential. She approached Luca and his family and asked if he would like to try training with her.
“I eventually trained with her my whole junior primary career until grade three,” Luca said. “She then told me to move from her ‘Learn to Swim’ programme to a club in Pinetown [Seagulls], which is my current club now.
At Seagulls, he showed further improvement, and during that time he also made the move from Kloof Junior Primary to Westville Senior Primary. He trained under a few coaches at Seagulls as he climbed the ladder before landing with Delon Dannhauser. When Delon made a move to Malta at the end of 2018, Luca joined Olympic swimming coach Graham Hill.
“With Graham, as soon as I joined the club and got to know all the different coaches, he was always a person that I wanted to impress,” Luca said. “When I was training with Delon, Graham didn’t take me. But as soon as Graham arrived at training, I would push that little bit harder so that he would notice me. He has always driven me to be the best I can be. I feel like I can train really well if he is pushing me.”
Recalling his rise through the ranks, Luca said: “The first squad I was in was not that competitive, but when I moved up to Delon he saw some talent and wanted me to push myself, and he really helped me. Then, along the way I met some good swimmers, like Chad le Clos and Myles Brown, while they were swimming in the bigger squads. I was just below them with a few of my peers and age group. Just seeing them swim really fast pushed me to want to get to where they are, and to be in the squad they were in. Now, eventually, I am at that level.”
During his primary school days, Luca’s talent was regularly on show at galas and it didn’t go unnoticed by high schools. He received a number of offers from those schools, but his choice was always going to be Westville, which his brother had attended before him.
“I was in grade seven when he was in matric, so when I got here he left. But I think from grade five, six, a few high schools offered me places, but my parents and I knew I was going to go to Westville, even if I wasn’t a swimmer. Having Westville as one of the top swimming schools in the country, made it a given to go to the school, and also because of my brother having been here. We did look at offers from other schools, but it just didn’t make sense not to go to Westville, and they offered a scholarship,” he said.
In every way, Westville was the logical choice, Luca added: “I think this school has always been good at sport, all sports, and the academic standard is very high, and it’s required of sportsmen, too. Westville does it really well, and all sports are equally embraced.”
Westville Boys’ High’s swimming team has been unbeaten for 13 years. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)
Swimming has opened his eyes to opportunities and possibilities, he said. When Luca was 13, he participated in international competition for the first time, travelling to Egypt. Last year, it was the Junior World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, which he attended at 15 years of age. It made a big impression on him.
“It was an amazing experience. Just to see the pools they have there. I remember swimming my first race. I knew it would be stressful, but not as stressful as it was. When I was getting ready for the race and was on the blocks, it blew my mind. You think it’s simple, but everything that happens is completely different. It’s important to travel at a young age, so you get used to that and the competition.”
Luca also tasted senior competition against some of the world’s best swimmers in the Mare Nostrum Series, in Monaco and Cannes. Unfortunately, while he was in Monaco, Princess Charlene, a former South African OIympic swimmer and big supporter of South African swimming was in New York, but Luca did get to visit the castle.
Being at Westville, a powerhouse of school swimming in South Africa, has helped stir his competitive spirit and challenge him to be improve, Luca said.
“In grade eight, I remember breaking one of Chad le Clos’ records. I didn’t even know it existed, but then I broke it and people were congratulating me. I made a goal for myself that I have been breaking his records since. I challenged myself to get all the records, not only his, but all or most of the others.”
Being an all-round competitor, has helped him chase them down. “I’ve always done all the strokes,” he said, “which has made me a good individual medley [IM] swimmer, but now in the last two years I have really picked up on my freestyle swimming, so I have been doing pretty well in freestyle and IM. Just been concentrating on those, I guess. But, from time to time, it is always good to swim in other events that aren’t your main events.”
At present, his favourite distance is 200 metres. “I used to do everything, and it wasn’t too bad. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the 400s, but it gets tough sometimes. Sometimes it hurts. I still train it,” he said.
So what does a typical day look like? Luca explained: “I have training at a quarter-past-five in the morning. I wake up at half-past-four. My dad will make me a Future Life. Luckily he still makes it for me. I’ll drink that and slowly get ready. I stay only 15 minutes away from the pool, so we’ll get there about five o’clock and stretch a bit. Then, we start at a quarter-past-five, and we finish at around a quarter-to-seven, so it’s about an-hour-and-a-half.
“After that, the school bus takes four or five of us to school. Then, training starts again at twenty-past-two, until about four, ten-past-four.
“I swim twice a day on Monday and Wednesday. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I have gym. Every day of the week I am up at half-past-four, getting ready to do some sort of training. Every afternoon I train, except for Friday, when I have the afternoon off.”
“By Friday afternoon, my body is absolutely shattered, so I don’t have any guilt about resting.”
While swimming tends to focus on the individual, school competition and being part of a team helps bring the best out of him, Luca explained: “Even for me, I sometimes swim faster than I would in an individual race in the relay, just because you have this team around you. It is a little less serious because you are racing with people. But, at the same time, you can swim really hard and have a good time.”
Luca Holtzhausen, Westville Boys’ High Head of Aquatics Jarred Appelgryn, and swimming captain Ian Brijlal with the winner’s trophies from the Alan Burt Gala, the Nestor Pierides Inter-provincial gala, the Kwa-Zulu Natal High Schools Top 10 Gala and the Durban and Districts Gala. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)
Inevitably, the questions turned to the swimmers who inspire him and he mentioned three men: Michael Phelps, the man many regard at the greatest swimmer of all time; Adam Peattie, Olympic 100m breaststroke champion and world record holder; and Chad le Clos, who has blazed a trail for South African swimmers competing on the world stage.
“There is something about Adam Peaty. I follow him on Instagram and I just see a lot of hard work goes into what he does, and his results are crazy. Just seeing all the things he does motivates me, and shows me where one can get to one day.
“Chad, because he beat Michael Phelps in one of his prestige races [the 200m butterfly]. And he didn’t come out of one of the best facilities. But he beat him and changed his life.
“My coach was talking to me about it the other day. I am lined up to do the same as Chad did, but in terms of Junior Worlds last year, World Short Course at the end of this year, next year is the Youth Olympics. All of these events, Chad did, and I can now follow exactly in his footsteps, and hopefully even do better.”
If they take place, Luca is hoping to make the South African team for the Fina Short Course World Swimming Championships, scheduled for 15 – 20 December in Abu Dhabi. It would his first selection for the South African senior team.
With two more years at Westville still ahead of him, it’s just a guess to think about the heights his swimming career is headed towards. But the trajectory is very promising. And the path has been laid out by a former Westville Boys’ High swimmer, a man whose records Luca has been dismantling…
Luke James has gone and is going places in gymnastics. He’s one of three Westville Boys’ High learners who were recently awarded their Merit ties, for receiving South African colours in sport. He’s won in national and international competition and he hopes to make it to the Olympic Games, maybe this year in Tokyo or in 2024 in Paris.
Qualifying for this year’s Games has had a spanner thrown in the works with the complications caused by the coronavirus. The African Championships, which also serve as Olympic qualifiers, were supposed to have been held in Eldoraigne from 1 to 5 April.
It’s a temporary setback for Luke, who recently broke into the senior ranks with the national team as the only team member from KwaZulu-Natal.
“Trials are still going to happen, but they’re postponed,” he said in a recent chat with KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan at Westville Boys’ High. “In a worst case scenario, no spectators will be allowed and they’ll have separate days for the different apparatus to keep it under 100 people in attendance. An Olympic trial has to happen regardless of whether or not the African Championships happen.
“I was looking forward to competing in Joburg because of the home crowd. We would have had big support in a nice, big stadium. I hope it still happens.”
The Tokyo Olympics are a dream, he revealed, but they’re only a potential part of a longer-term plan: “Since this is my first year in the senior national team, my chances to go to the Olympics aren’t too high, although there is a chance. But I have definitely got my eye set on the 2024 Olympics. Also, on the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, and then the World Championships and World Cups.”
All-round excellence: SA softball star Troy Botha
Full school uniform, standing back flip, no problem! (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)
Luke’s gymnastics’ journey began a decade ago when, at the age of seven, he joined the Pinetown Gymnastics Club. He was a very active child and his parents saw the club as an ideal outlet for him to expend some of his seemingly boundless energy.
“I was a bouncy kid, playing a lot, and the Gymnastics Club was pretty close to home. We had some friends who were going, so I joined in and I loved it. I had a trampoline as a kid, so I was always jumping on it,” Luke recalled.
He participated in competitions from the start, but his first international competition, the Junior Commonwealth Games in Namibia in 2016, truly underlined his potential. He was in grade eight at the time and claimed a bronze medal on the floor.
“That’s when I realised I should pursue the sport. It was exciting, something I wasn’t expecting,” Luke said. “It was crazy. It felt like I was on top of the world.
“It was great because we were also second in the team event. The reaction was really good, people were so happy. That’s when my name started coming up more in the gymnastics’ community.”
In 2018, Luke won a bronze medal on the floor at the African Championships and helped South Africa to second place in the team competition.
Luke James on the podium after finishing in third place on the floor in the African Junior Championships, held in Swakopmund, Namibia, in 2018. (Photo: South African Gymnastics Federation, http://www.sagf.co.za/)
In September 2019, he captured the South African Junior floor and vault gold medals in the National Championships. He was then selected to represent the country at the Olympic Hopes event in Prague, the Czech Republic. There, Luke performed superbly, making the final of both events and coming away with a gold medal in the vault.
“That was a big deal for me,” he admitted.
Gymnastics has presented Luke with the opportunity to travel, something that he loves doing. Japan, home to the reigning Olympic men’s team champions, and to his particular hero, Kōhei Uchimura, the winner of three gold and four silvers across two Olympics, has a deal with South Africa that takes the country’s athletes to the Land of the Rising Sun.
“We go out there every year and they pay for us to go and train with them,” Luke revealed. “I have done that three times now, usually for about 10 days. I went at the beginning of this year, and also in 2016 and 2017.
“I met the whole squad. We learnt a bit of Japanese and they know some English too. That’s also motivation, getting to travel the world for free, getting to see different places and meet new people.”
Being able to see how the top gymnasts in the world train has been an eye-opening experience, he added: “They are so advanced in what they do, and they have such a big support team around them. They have scientists working to figure out different things. It’s a crazy new world. We can learn from them and bring that knowledge back here, which is the whole point.”
The demands of competing at an elite level of gymnastics are high and they’re especially challenging for a 17-year-old in matric, Luke said, as he detailed what a typical week looks like for him: “I finish school at 14:20 and go straight to the gym. I start at 15:00 and finish at 19:00. Four hours a day, Monday to Friday, and then on a Saturday it’s 09:00 to 13:00. Those are serious numbers. There’s a lot of sacrifice.
“I do homework when I can, whenever I can find a gap. The teachers are understanding. Usually when I get home, I will eat, do a bit of homework and go to sleep.
“During exams, I tone down the numbers in the gym. The teachers are quite demanding about what they expect in the class room.
“Sunday is my off day, so that is usually time for school work.” Weekends are also the time he gets to spend with his father on his other hobby, dirt bike riding.
Luke won gold on the vault at the Olympic Hopes event in Prague at the end of 2019. (Photo: South African Gymnastics Federation, https://www.sagf.co.za/)
Another challenge, and it is especially important for gymnasts, is diet. Thankfully for Luke, who confessed he has a sweet took, he has professional help at hand.
“Luckily I am on the EADP programme at Prime, which is a High Performance Institute in Durban,” he explained. “I have a dietician on my side who makes meal plans. They keep my body running all the time. I am very lucky to have them, to be honest.”
Being a smaller person is certainly something that helps in gymnastics, but that, too, can change.
“I am growing quite a lot,” Luke admitted, “so it is a challenge. As you grow taller, your geometry changes, but I am adapting to it.”
His plans for his gymnastics and his post-Westville Boys’ High days entail a move to the northern hemisphere to train in the UK with their Olympic coach, Paul Hall.
“I will compete for South Africa, but train in the UK,” Luke explained. “I am going to study through correspondence, doing film.”
Visual effects and editing have always been one of his interests, he said. Interestingly, he reckons they also helped him to persuade Hall to train him. “I sent an email to him to try and get a spot on his team. I made these videos of my training and it was kind of like the smoke and mirror effect to make everything look good.”
The thing with gymnastics’ competition, though, is there are no short cuts. There are no smoke and mirrors that will pass the scrutiny of the judges. It’s all about hard work, talent, and commitment and Luke James has demonstrated that he has those. Now he wants to explore just how far they can take him.
Multi-talented all-rounder Troy Botha is the kind of learner that Westville Boys’ High School strives to produce. He’s a good academic student, a strong contributor in a number of sports, having earned provincial colours for cricket and most recently South African under-18 colours for softball, and he also sets a good example as a school prefect.
KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan sat down with Troy at the school this week to discuss his achievements, going back to the start of his sporting days, and, of course, asked him about the 2020 Under-18 Softball World Cup, which was played in New Zealand from 22 February to 1 March.
Proudly wearing the green and gold national colours of South Africa, softball star Troy Botha.
He’s a left-hander in everything he does which, Troy believes, gives him an advantage. It also has limited some of his options in softball, but he plays either first base or outfield, while batting fifth or sixth in the order.
The foundation for his success in the sport was laid in primary school, but it didn’t begin with softball. Rather, it started with baseball, which he played at Atholl Heights, and it was only in the last two years of his primary schooling that he started to play softball. It didn’t take long for him to make his mark.
He first earned his KwaZulu-Natal colours in grade six, at the age of 12, and went on to represent KZN at under-13 level for two years. Then he had to decide on a high school.
Luke James is aiming for gymnastic’s biggest stages
The move to Westville Boys’ High for his secondary education was a simple decision. Not only was his brother, Kyle, at the school, but he was also approached by the school’s Marketing Manager who had seen Troy in action in a rugby match against Westville. From there matters moved quickly.
Recalling the rapid pace at which things happened, he said: “Mr Du Plessis liked the way I played and the attitude that I had. The match was on a Wednesday night, he called me on the Thursday and booked an interview for the following Monday. The intent that he showed and how keen he was for me to come to Westville and have a look around the school really did help.” Oh, and Westville also played softball.
Judging by the enthusiasm with which Troy now talks about the school, it was the right decision. Westville was a perfect fit.
At the school, he was introduced to English teacher and 1st team softball coach, Warren Hitchings. “He’s been really good for me,” said Troy. “He’s helped me with my sport and my softball especially. He’s been with me through quite a lot.”
In grade eight, Troy was selected for the KZN under-15 team, but grade 9 presented him with a difficult choice after he was named in both the KZN softball and cricket sides. Explaining how he came to his decision, Troy said: “It was my first year making the cricket team, so I chose the cricket over the softball.
At the end of 2019, the KwaZulu-Natal under-17 team, under coach and Westville teacher Warren Hitchings (third from right) won silver at the National Summer Games. The team included six Westville boys: Troy Botha, Craig Reid, Kian Garnham, Joel Wadsworth, Ethan Shirley and Taine Scott. (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/westvilleboyshighschool/)
“Cricket started pretty much since I could walk,” he recalled. “My first word was ‘ball’. That kind of said I was going to play a lot of sport. ”
It was at the end of 2018 that it became clear that he might be destined for bigger things in softball. After the National Summer Games in Kempton Park, he was chosen for an All Star Team. That was followed by a national training camp and after that he was named in a side to go to Nigeria for a World Cup qualifier against the West African nation. Two other countries, Botswana and Mali, had pulled out, so it was a two-horse race for a place at the Softball World Cup.
Nigeria was an eye-opener for Troy, not necessarily on the sporting front, but in terms of how people live their lives in other parts of the world.
“The experience in Nigeria was something else. Things are a lot tougher there. I wasn’t expecting that, things like the way they drive and the rules of the road, there aren’t many,” Troy related.
“We had an armed bodyguard with an AK-47 throughout our whole time there! You don’t want to go anywhere else besides your hotel and the playing fields. I had no idea that this was going to happen. It was a bit of a shock, but we were well looked after.”
On the field, things went well. South Africa beat Nigeria and booked themselves a place at the World Cup.
Troy Botha, rounding the bases for KZN in interprovincial competition. (Photos: supplied)
Predictably, given South Africa’s lack of international competition and relatively small base of players, there were some challenging games in New Zealand. There was one big loss to Australia, other games in which they were convincingly beaten, a couple which could have gone either way, and two which the South African side won, defeating Denmark 12-2 and the USA 11-7.
“That was quite an accomplishment,” Troy said about the win over the Americans.
“We lost close games to Singapore (8-9) and Mexico (5-7), where we could have pulled off the win, but things, at the end of the day, just didn’t fall our way.
Being a World Cup, though, South Africa did get to face the best teams in the world, including runners-up Australia and bronze medallists, the Czech Republic.
Viewed objectively, Troy said good memories were made: “We were chuffed with our performances. A lot of guys showed up well. It wasn’t a one-man show, it was a group effort.”
While he has national colours in softball, Troy is looking to cricket to possibly help him onto a different big sporting stage.
Although a talented side, in the first term the form of the Westville 1st cricket team was somewhat inconsistent. Troy, an all-rounder, described it as tough. “We were meant to be quite a strong side; nobody seemed to be in form at the same time. If one guy fired, then the rest of the team seemed to let that player carry them.
“We did get quite a few good wins. We came close against Clifton, chasing quite a big total. They really did well. We fought hard and gave it our all.
“All the [KZN10] schools here are very good opposition. You don’t get games where you know you are going to win. It’s always 50/50.”
On a personal level, though, Troy had a solid season. “I was taking the wickets that I needed to,” he said.
“I want to try and go overseas, either the UK or Ireland, on a club cricket contract. Possibly, if I get the opportunity, I would then like to play on a bigger stage.
Troy, showing off his all-round ability for the Westville 1st cricket team. (Photos: supplied)
“I was recently approached by the Futura Sports Agency and I will be going for an interview with them. I have been keeping in contact with them and we’re going to have a meeting to try to get me into their Prodigy to Pro Program. They specialise in scouting overseas at academies to get opportunities for people like me to go and play there. That would be a big help.”
Interestingly, and it reflects well on the type of person Troy is, when asked what immediately comes to mind for the sporting highlights of his life so far, they’re all team-related Westville memories, and they’re not even in softball or cricket.
“It is about the team,” he said. “At under-16 level, we played rugby against Maritzburg College here, on Bowden’s, and Maritzburg College were unbeaten all season. They had beaten Glenwood, who, I think, were ranked first in the country at that time.
“We ended up beating them by something like 10 points, which was really special. Also, because it was the last game of the season.”
Troy on kicking duty during the rugby season. (Photo: supplied)
Troy is currently in the 2nd XV for the rugby season, playing at inside centre.
Then, revealing another string to his bow, he identified the football season of 2019 as another highlight. Troy was selected as left-back in the Westville 1st team, training under coaches Ryan Liberty and Brad Wood.
Being left-handed (and left-footed) is an advantage, Troy believes. (Photos: supplied)
It wasn’t a great season in terms of the overall results, he admitted, but there were some wonderful matches played. There was a fantastic come-from-behind win over Kearsney when Westville, down 0-1, struck twice in the last five minutes to win the game.
Then, there was a clash with Maritzburg College on Goldstone’s. It was the first time that College played a football match on their hallowed ground, the scene of so many cricket and rugby successes for the school from the KZN capital. Westville, though, spoilt the party. “It was quite an accomplishment to beat them on Goldstone’s,” Troy grinned.
With such a busy sporting life, with much of it played at a very high level, balance is a challenge, but Troy performs solidly in the classroom. Given Westville’s outstanding academic tradition, it is expected of the boys, but, in his case, Troy said he owes his teachers a great deal.
“It is challenging academically and the teachers do challenge us, but the pressure is really good, and I appreciate the teachers for doing that. They really do help us a lot and they don’t sit back and wait for you to do your own thing. They put the pressure on you to make sure you perform to the best of your ability.”
And that pretty much sums up Troy Botha: performing to the best of his ability in a wide variety of sports and other aspects of school life and loving his time at Westville Boys’ High School.
Michaelhouse paddlers produced a stunning set of results in the recent Dusi Canoe Marathon. In a K2 (doubles) year, they had five of the six podium finishers in the under-18 race and were also the victors in the under-16 event. It was fair reward for a close-knot group of boys whose love for the sport and competition between one another has brought out the best in them, as KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan found out when he visited Balgowan last week.
Victory in the Dusi went the way of Ross Leslie and Chase Leisegang, followed by Sam Butcher and Matthew Millward, with Jack Edmonds in third. He had teamed up with Kwandokuhle Mzolo for the iconic three day race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Jack Shooter and Reuben Baldry claimed the under-16 honours.
Beyond those results, the excellence of the performances of the Michaelhouse boys was underlined by their overall positions in the field: Leslie/Leisegang 19th, Butcher/Millward 21st, Edmonds/Mzolo 23rd and Shooter/Baldry 82nd. Special mention, too, must go to Michaelhouse Head of the Life Sciences Department and master-in-charge of canoeing, Paul Snyman, who teamed up with Huntley Earle and came home in 102nd place.
Michaelhouse’s journey to be SA basketball’s best
The overall sixth place finishers, it is worth noting, were the Houston brothers, Alan and Andrew, both Michaelhouse old boys. The boat in 24th place was of interest, too. That crew was made up of Brandon van der Walt, a former junior world marathon champion, and Shane Millward. Shane is Matthew’s father, so son beat father.
Mary Millward, Matthew’s mother, is the long-time secretary of the Natal Canoe Club, the hosts of the Dusi Canoe Marathon. She said some playful ribbing has gone on between the pair since, but Shane was more than happy that Matthew beat him.
Michaelhouse’s paddling success, as with most successes in life, did not happen overnight. A fantastic tradition of excellence has been building up in recent years, with the school producing outstanding talents, like the Houstons, Craig Heenan and Emanuel Zaloumis, all top performers in the Dusi (and other river races and marathons), and Jean van der Westhuyzen, who at just 16 years of age captured the K2 junior title at the 2014 ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships in Oklahoma City with Maritzburg College old boy, Louis Hattingh.
At the 2018 National Sprint Championships, Jean van der Westhuyzen was crowned the Men’s Victor Ludorum. He has since emigrated Down Under and is on the Australian national team. (Photo: Anthony Grote, Gameplanmedia)
More recently, a victory in the under-16 age group of the K2 race at the 2018 Dusi Canoe Marathon by Ross Leslie and Sam Butcher served notice that they would be hot contenders in 2020. Ross comes from a good pedigree. His dad, James, was for many years one of the top Dusi paddlers.
In a chat with Paul Snyman, Ross, Sam and Chase, Sam said he was inspired by the example set by Craig Heenan and Jean van der Westhuyzen: “I remember watching them train and seeing them get results. It prompted me to want to start paddling and to try to achieve like them.”
It was Sam that really challenged him to become a better paddler, said Ross: “We always used to race each other and eventually we started training so hard we dropped all of our other sports and focussed completely on canoeing.
“The thing that has got Michaelhouse Canoe Club so big is that there is a big bunch of us that are really close friends. We try and train together, so that results in us pushing one another a lot harder. That’s the reason why we are dominating so much,” he added.
The Michaelhouse boys are fortunate to have a dam on the school grounds to train on, but they also make regular trips down to Pietermaritzburg to participate in the Dusi Dice on Thursday evenings at Natal Canoe Club.The weekly event brings together paddlers of all abilities and ages for what is, in essence, a competitive training session on Camps Drift. It’s also a time to learn from others and be a part of a community that is, arguably, more inclusive than any other sport’s community in South Africa.
A recent photo, taken from the Michaelhouse Facebook page, showing the Canoe Club boys training on the school’s dam. (https://www.facebook.com/michaelhouse.org/)
That inclusivity is also evident in the Michaelhouse Canoe Club and, in this instance, it’s about bringing together boys of different ages from different year groups. Master-in-charge of canoeing Paul Snyman explained: “Chase, for example, was in grade 10 last year, but he was way better than many of the senior paddlers, and that kind of levels the playing fields, so you don’t have the hierarchy that you tend to have in all-boys’ schools. It flattens out a bit, so you can have a grade 10 boy having a friend in A Block (grade 12) or grade 11.”
“When you’re a grade 8 or 9, you tend to be a bit lost, but when you get to the dam and a matric boy or a grade 11 is your buddy, it’s a lot easier to fit in at the school, which is nice,” Sam commented.
Last year, winter training was introduced. In Balgowan, that would be a daunting and, one imagines, rather unpleasant thing, given the cold winters. Thankfully, almost all of the paddling takes place elsewhere, Paul Snyman explained: “It involves quite a lot of travelling, but I think that has been important in their development to be put in a group of like-minded paddlers from Pietermaritzburg and its surrounds, including adults, who push these guys. I think it has had a positive effect.”
Proud paddlers: Sam Butcher, vice-captain, Michaelhouse Canoe Club; Chase Leisegang; and Ross Leslie, captain, Michaelhouse Canoe Club. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)
So, to the 2020 Dusi Canoe Marathon…
Based on their results in events leading up to the race, the Michaelhouse boys figured they would be dicing it out for the honours. “In all the pre-races, we were always on the podium, but the order changed,” said Ross. “We knew it was going to be between our three boats, we just didn’t know what the finishing positions would be.”
Camp’s Drift, as the paddlers head for the Ernie Pearce Weir, shortly after the start on day one of the Dusi Canoe Marathon. This group included Sam Butcher and Matthew Millward. (Photo: supplied)
The Dusi, more than any other race, places a premium on both running (portaging in paddling parlance) and paddling, and that was something that favoured Ross Leslie and Chase Leisegang. Ross credited their coach, Andrew Booyens, for ensuring their running was a strength. It also helped that Booyens coached now 10-time Dusi winner, Andy Birkett, from whom he was able to glean valuable information.
Despite their solid preparation and strength in running, Chase admitted that the opening day, especially the Campbell’s Farm portages, made it the hardest of the three days for him because he and his partner pushed so hard. Nonetheless, he and Ross were rewarded for their labours and were the first under-18 finishers on the day in 3:01:53.65.
The Campbell’s Farm portage, early on day one, played a decisive role in winning the overall under-18 title for Chase Leisegang (front) and Ross Leslie (back). (Photo: supplied)
Jack Edmonds and Kwandokuhle Mzolo followed in 3:08:50.27, with Sam Butcher and Matthew Millward in third. It was a tough day for the Butcher/Millward combination, especially for Sam. He was dealing with the effects of a severely broken ankle that he had suffered some months previously. On a day with plenty of portaging, he struggled. “My running was poor, more walking than running,” he admitted.
On day two, Ross and Chase were able to stretch their lead after a strong finish on Inanda Dam saw them cross the line in 3:11:23.90. It was far from smooth sailing, however, as Ross related: “On day two it rained and it had a big effect. On one of the portages, Ngomeni’s, the initial 10 metres was a mudslide. It was very hard getting up there.”
“The portage was quite wet and we couldn’t run too fast,” Sam weighed in, but his partner, Matthew, had an even tougher time. ““He vomited from five kilometres above the dam to about three-quarters of the way to the end of the day. For about 12 kilometres out, he was vomiting. He tried to sip his juice, he brought it up. Eventually that just went away and we were strong for the last bit.”
It was only later that they realised the likely cause of Matthew’s illness was bilharzia, which he had previously contracted. “He went through stages when he was fine and then it was bad. He was a bit loopy, which bilharzia does to you,” reckoned Sam.
Despite their challenges, the Butcher/Millward boat crossed the line in 3:13:42.28, which was enough to put them ahead of Edmonds/Mzolo, who finished in 3:19:41.08.
With the fearsome Burma Road portage ruled out as an option on day three, everybody would have to stay on the water and paddle around that section of the river. Thankfully for the boys, steady rain helped elevate the water level, making for a very enjoyable time.
“It was great to paddle around this year. I actually paddled it last year (when he finished 42nd overall and fourth in the under-18 K1 race), so I knew where to go. The water levels were very good,” Ross smiled.
When the finish at Blue Lagoon loomed, it came with some butterflies in the stomach, Chase acknowledged: “I was nervous. I felt like they were catching us quite quickly and I tried to paddle my hardest to the end.”
He and Ross had enough in the bag, however, to claim a sweet victory, even though Sam and Matthew did record the third day’s best under-18 performance. Chase and Ross posted a time of 2:28:06.82, which saw them complete the race in 8:41:24.37. A 2:24:27.48 saw Sam and Matthew end it in 8:48:44.15.
Behind them, Jack Edmonds and Kwandokuhle Mzolo finished in 2:32:23.90, narrowly eclipsing the nine-hour mark for the race.
The under-16 winners, Jack Shooter and Reuben Baldry, completed the Dusi with a total time of 10:41:39.80 to secure both of the boys’ age group titles for Michaelhouse.
The under-16 age group winners of the 2020 Dusi Canoe Marathon: Jack Shooter and Reuben Baldry. (Photo: supplied)
The year is young and there is plenty more to come from the Michaelhouse paddlers. Sam is focussing on the sprints and will contest national trials in Shongweni from 1-5 April. If he earns selection, he will race for South Africa at Brandenburg in Germany in July.
Last year, he was part of a 15-person South African squad that travelled to Slovakia to contest an Olympic Hopes event, with the format mirroring that used in the Olympics. “It was great to learn how it works and how big it is over there,” he said.
For many of the other boys, their focus will turn to marathon racing, mixed in, from time to time, with some surf-skiing. Then, look out for Michaelhouse to excel again in another of the country’s most popular river races, the Fish River Canoe Marathon, which takes place from 26-30 September.
Last year, the Michaelhouse team of Sam Butcher, Ross Leslie, Matthew Millward, and Jack Edmonds, all of whom remain at the school, captured the Schools’ Team Trophy, which is exactly what they did in this year’s Dusi. But that should have been obvious, shouldn’t it?
When the two very impressive pools in your Aquatic Centre are named after your school’s illustrious old boys, Chad le Clos and Chad Ho, one knows that good things have happened in your swimming programme, writes KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan.
When one asks the question when Westville Boys High was last beaten in a gala and no one can instantly recall the answer, there’s your second clue; the swimming programme at Westville Boys High isn’t just good, it’s exceptional.
In case you’ve been hibernating to avoid news for more than the past decade, Chad le Clos, who specialises in the butterfly, is an Olympic champion and a multiple world champion in both long course and short course swimming. He was the man who brought an end to the reign of the greatest swimmer the world has seen, Michael Phelps, in the American’s speciality, the 200m butterfly, at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Open water swimmer Chad Ho is a two-time World Championships medallist, finishing third in the 5km event in Rome in 2009, and winning gold in the 2015 World Champs over the same distance in Kazan. He’s also the record seven-time champion of the world’s largest open water swimming event, the aQuellé Midmar Mile.
Westville dominated Durban and District Gala
The Chad le Clos Pool in the Westville Boys High School Aquatic Centre is very impressive and able to host galas and water polo matches.
So, there’s the past success. Then there’s the Aquatic Centre itself that the boys utilise at the school. It’s hugely impressive and, yes, huge too. It’s also a facility that would be the envy of most swimming clubs.
But, no matter how great a facility is, no matter how great a school’s history is, it takes good teachers to teach and motivate learners to challenge themselves to become better, and that is where Westville has led and continues to lead the way.
The foundations for Westville’s extraordinary swimming success were laid by former Deputy Headmaster Nestor Pierides, who passed away in January 2019. He had a passion for finding, developing and nurturing sportsmen and he especially promoted swimming.
It was because of Pierides that the school’s current swimming captain, Ian Brijlal, chose to attend Westville Boys’ High. Ian was a learner at Hopeville Primary School, mostly for the academics, he said, but the school also had a strong swimming tradition. When Pierides saw Ian in action at the National Championships, he approached his parents about the possibility of sending their son to Westville for his secondary schooling.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do for high school, but my parents were very moved by Mr Pierides coming to me. That made a big difference to me. I felt needed and wanted,” Ian said, sitting on one of the stands in the Aquatic Centre on Wednesday. “A lot of other swimmers that are in matric with me feel that sense of belonging, as if they need us, and that had a big impact.”
Westville swimming phenom Luca Holtzhausen dreams big
Westville, though, is also a school with a strong academic tradition, and that was also part of the criteria Ian needed to meet. “The criteria are not only about swimming,” he said, “they’re also about academics. You need to have a good academic level. You can’t be failing and expect to get a scholarship, because you would then bring down the pass rate for matrics, and you would bring down the whole grade.”
To put the importance of academics at Westville into context, we’re not talking average, we’re talking well above average. The school has an incredible record in that sphere. In 2019, for example, 232 boys wrote the final exams, with 93 percent achieving Bachelor and Diploma passes. An astonishing 22 boys achieved seven distinctions or more.
Underlining just how well the school performed was the fact that 85 percent of the boys took core mathematics and 78 percent physical science, two subjects in which most South African schools perform abysmally. A further 33 boys wrote advanced programme mathematics.
As an athlete, Ian said he is determined to defy the stereotype that sportsman are not smart. Thus, he finds himself in one of the leading academic classes in matric. And he is not alone among the swimmers. It’s about all-round excellence and it’s about setting an example for others to follow.
Back to the pool…the big push to make Westville a powerhouse of the sport came in 2008, explained the Head of Aquatics, Jarred Appelgryn. That year, for the first time, the school won the Durban and Districts Gala, a competition comprising 4 x 50 metres relays in all strokes, in all age groups, and a ladder relay.
It’s a competition that truly focuses on the depth of swimming talent in a school. It’s also a competition that Westville has won every year since then, including 2020’s gala, which was held at the end of February, when they raced to victory in 22 out of the 26 races on the programme.
Westville swimming captain Ian Brijlal accepts the Durban and District’s winner’s trophy from DHS Headmaster Tony Pinheiro. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)
More than in galas of other formats, the focus of the Durban and Districts meet is on the team and while swimming might seem to be a sport that is centred on the individual the idea of team applies very strongly at Westville.
Nowadays, most school’s top swimmers train only with clubs. In most cases, that is 100 percent the case, but at Westville it’s not.
Graham Hill, a former South African national swimming team Olympic coach, is nearby, and a bus takes boys to training with him daily at 14:00, while Petro Nortjé, like Hill a multiple South African champion in various strokes, coaches boys in the Chad Ho swimming pool at the school. The vast majority of boys train with the two former swimming stars, the outstanding South African swimmers of their day, and the quality of the coaching they provide is superb.
“It does make a big difference that they are all club swimmers. We’re not doing the training for about 75 percent of the boys,” Appelgryn said.
“Some afternoons, the captain will call a practice for a bit of team vibe. The other 25 percent of the boys that make up the team are waterpolo players. We’re doing our ‘polo fitness while they’re swimming, and then they also have ‘polo practice.
“The big difference is that the club players bring the speed element, but then your polo players, where they tie in, is they bring the team vibe.”
The decision to also develop waterpolo at the school was an important and valuable move, Appelgryn reckoned: “We decided that we can’t just hinge on swimming success. We had to bring in the waterpolo as well.
“Westville’s waterpolo was never the greatest, but every year now we’re lifting it a notch or two to be in the top three consistently in the province. We go to tournaments knowing we’re not going to be playing for the wooden spoon,” he said in a case of classic understatement.
Westville, seen here in a 12-7 win over DHS, is one of KwaZulu-Natal’s leading waterpolo-playing schools. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)
With competition so strong among the swimmers, Appelgryn said his main focus is on getting the team selection right, and at times, he explained, that means making selections based on intuition and not on times alone.
“Sometimes it is hard for boys to accept that the fourth swimmer is not the fourth best. Sometimes the boy who is fifth is five or six splits off [the fourth swimmer’s time], but he has more of a drive to win a race. There is a lot of gut feel when we sit down and pick our sides.
“It’s not simply [that we choose] our top four and the second fastest swims first, quickest swims last. Most of our fastest swimmers actually swim in third place in the relay against most of the other schools’ slowest swimmers, just to solidify a winning result, hopefully.
“At the end of the day, we try to encourage boys to remember that it is not just an individualistic sport at school. At club level, it is. You need to remember that you are swimming for your school and for the guys next to you.
“We try to base it off of the American style where the institutions there back their swimmers, so that they’re representing their teams, not themselves.”
There is also little room for complacency in such a competitive environment, swimming captain Ian related: “Swimming times are always changing, guys are always improving. It’s talent, but mainly hard work.
“In grade eight, maybe you are the best, but you stop training as hard and swim every now and again, and think you can keep it up. You can’t.
“If someone is training hard, they can be ranked last, but two years down the line they will overtake you. That happened to me, and to many others, and it is a wake-up call. I think every athlete needs that.
“You have to always be on your game. You can’t expect to win every single thing. You have to put in hard work to win. All the athletes at this school put in the hard work.”
A dramatic start to a backstroke relay at the Durban and Districts Gala where Westville finished a convincing 45 points ahead of the second placed team. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)
“It’s not as if Westville is just going to win every gala. You can’t win unless you work hard. Everyone has to step up their game, and they do.”
Being appointed the captain of the Westville Boys’ High swimming team was a huge honour, Ian continued: “It meant a lot to me because this school is undefeated. There’s a lot of pressure, but it feels important as well, and it gives a lot of meaning to my life.
“Giving speeches on behalf of Westville has meant a lot because you have a lot of responsibility. If you mess up or lose, I feel personally responsible for that too. If you win, our entire team wins.
Action from one of the 50 metres breaststroke relay events at the Durban and Districts Gala. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)
“I think it is my job as captain to try and motivate everyone to try and do better, and to bring them up when they are down.”
Citing the Durban and District Gala, where DHS managed three relay wins to Westville’s two in the under-15 age group, he said: “Take the under-15s, they’re not a bad age group. They’re still under-15 and there is still a way to go to the open age group. If they have the right grounding now, and if they learn from their losses, they can work harder and maybe by the time they’re competing at under-17 or open level they will win.”
Head of Aquatics, Jarred Appelgryn, weighed in, saying that while winning is good it is not the be all and end all of matters: “Most of the time, we are one step ahead of the opposition. But it’s also nice to not always be a step ahead. It’s nice that the boys lose a race. We lost four at Durban and Districts. It’s nice because the boys, then, don’t get complacent.
“Two or three years ago, I don’t think the boys lost a race, period. But you could see that the boys became complacent, not that one can necessarily blame them. Therefore, it is good to be beaten every now and again.”
He feels some pressure to maintain the winning tradition, he admitted: “but I think when you’ve got a team like I do, including [members of staff] Brad Rowe, Andrew Stewart and Tanya Bower, there is a lot of experience.
“As much as it is my first year stepping in as Head of Aquatics, the marketing guys are with us and there are people looking out for the boys. The teachers help our swimmers academically, too. It’s a massive team effort that leads to the final performance.”
Star swimmer Luca Holtzhausen, who broke five records in the Nestor Pierides Inter-provincial gala, including a Chad le Clos butterfly mark, Head of Aquatics Jarred Appelgryn, and swimming captain Ian Brijlal show off the silverware awarded to the winning school in the Alan Burt Gala, the Nestor Pierides Inter-provincial gala, the Kwa-Zulu Natal High Schools Top 10 Gala and the Durban and Districts Gala. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)
A look at four of the trophies currently in Westville’s possession tell an incredible story of excellence: champions of the Durban and Districts Gala, the Kwa-Zulu Natal High Schools’ Top 10 Gala, the Alan Burt Gala, and, most importantly to the school itself, the winners of the Nestor Pierides Inter-Provincial Gala every year since 2008.
At times, people lose the love of the sport they participate in, because of the pressure that comes with winning and the expectation that that success should continue. But, if Westville swimming captain Ian Brijlal is any example of the general feeling among the Griffins’ swimmers, the enjoyment of competition has not been lost.
“I love racing. I love the closeness of the gala. For example, the Nestor Pareidis Gala was amazing. Grey College, Saint David’s, Affies and Saint Benedict’s were really close. It was crazy.
“I enjoy close races. Winning all the time is not as much fun. There is no point in winning all the time, otherwise you lose purpose. We lost a few races and it kept people on their toes.”
Appelgryn echoed Ian’s sentiments: “There is performance pressure when it comes to galas, especially like the Affies Gala, which we were losing by about 17 points halfway through the gala, and then I was wondering was I going to be that guy [who oversaw the end of the winning streak].
But, at no point is someone watching my back, saying don’t mess this up, which is nice. It actually makes my job quite easy in terms of dealing with the kids and the way I can deal with them. I am not putting that onto them to secure my job. That’s make a big difference for them as well.”
It is said that success breeds success and that is true, but to continue to succeed one needs to strive to achieve ever higher goals, lest the challengers catch up.
At Westville, each and every swimmer strives to better himself, for his benefit and for the benefit of the team, and, inevitably it seems, Westville wins again.
DHS played host to the annual Durban and District Gala on Tuesday afternoon. The event – featuring DHS, Westville, Northwood, Glenwood, Clifton and Kearsney – consisted of the 4 x 50m relay in all strokes in the under-14, under-15, under-16, under-17 and under-19 age groups and culminated in the 5 x 50m freestyle ladder relay, writes KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan.
Contested late in the afternoon, a decently sized crowd took in some good competition in pleasant conditions, with the powerhouse Westville team, predictably, dominating proceedings. A total of 26 events were contested with the Griffins excelling and capturing the honours in 22 of the 26 relays.
While Westville ruled the roost in the Durban and Districts Gala, DHS shone in the under-15 age group, picking up wins in three of the five relays (All photos: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)
They impressed with their depth, not only in the various strokes, but also throughout the various age groups. Westville also swept all relays in the under-14, under-16 and under-17 age groups.
The best boys’ school swimming team in South Africa
Westville swimming phenom Luca Holtzhausen dreams big
Clifton picked up a very impressive win in the under-19 freestyle relay, which, obviously, meant their time of 1:40.84 was the fastest recorded in any relay on the day. That was the only race Westville didn’t win in the senior age group.
The competition took place in ideal late afternoon conditions, with a nice crowd in attendance.
DHS were especially strong at under-15 level. In fact, they claimed three wins to Westville’s two, with the hosts giving the crowd plenty to cheer with victories in the backstroke, butterfly and medley relays, while Westville reigned supreme in the freestyle and breaststroke races.
A hallmark of the gala, which was very pleasing to witness, was the friendly nature of the competition. It echoed days gone by when winning was not all that mattered and the appreciation of challenging oneself and others was as important as the result itself.
So, well done to all the swimmers and the coaches (and moms and dads); besides the excellence of the performances, the good-natured racing stood out.
From the first event to the last, there was no doubt that Westville would claim the silverware as champions of the Durban and Districts Gala. DHS headmaster Tony Pinheiro presented the winner’s trophy to Westville captain Ian Brijlal.
1st: Westville 152 points
2nd: Clifton 107 points
3rd: DHS 90 points
4th T: Glenwood 69 points
4th T: Kearsney 69 points
6th: Northwood 57 points