Johannesburg – Months before Johan Cronje stunned South Africans with his tenacious bronze-medal run at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, he proclaimed he could challenge for a medal.
“I always believed I could win a medal and that is actually the reason why I am still competing,” Cronje said in Bloemfontein on Thursday.
“In the past, there had always been something that went wrong for me –either in my preparations or at the actual championships.
“This year, I just decided I had the experience and to use what I'd learnt from previous years of disappointments.”
The 31-year-old had been plagued by injuries throughout his career, and had to deal with the misfortune of missing out on last year's London Olympic Games.
His stubborn attitude paid off and, remaining injury-free, he progressed through to the world championships in top form to claim third place in the men's 1500m.
True to his character, Cronje showed grit and determination to surge at the finish line and snatch the bronze medal in a close tussle for second, third and fourth place.
The South African record-holder clocked three minutes 36.83 seconds (3:36.83) behind Kenyan Asbel Kiprop, who won in 3.36.28, and American Matthew Centrowitz who finished second in 3:36.78.
Kiprop took control of the race from the gun, pulling the field through 400m, while Cronje found himself boxed in on the kerb, initially in fifth, then dropping back to eighth with 300 metres to go.
His form this season was an indication there were greater things to come for the Bloemfontein athlete.
At the beginning of May, he broke the 20-year-old South African 1500m record, finishing eighth in the opening leg of the Diamond League season in Doha, Qatar.
He raced to a time of 3:33.46, improving on Johan Landsman's previous national mark of 3:33.56, set in Zurich, Switzerland, in August 1993.
“That (the South African record) helped quite a lot as it was my second race of the year,” Cronje said.
“Although I was in good form in training, I knew I had a chance of breaking the record, but you don't expect to do it in your second race.
“It happened so easily for me and I just realised I could run faster.”
Back home in Bloemfontein, his parents Sarina and Danie Cronje watched in awe as their son conquered his opponents in Moscow.
Sarina said her son had worked extremely hard to overcome his injury battles and earn his just reward.
“I couldn't believe it. It was very close with two to four short on each other's heels,” she said.
“When everybody was shouting 'Johan is third, Johan is third', I couldn't believe it and I had to watch the replay – then I cried.”
Sarina Cronje said her son had been extremely focused for the world championships and had set his sights on making the final.
“He's worked hard for many years and, despite his injuries, he held on. I think he deserves it after all these years.”
Cronje said he still had to come down from the high he had experienced to fully appreciate the extent of his achievement.
After taking a couple of days off from training, he was back on the track this week in preparation for next Tuesday's Diamond League meeting in Zurich.
He admitted there would be more pressure on his shoulders as he needed to prove he was not just a flash in the pan.
“I've only just realised, over the last two days, what a major achievement it was, and what it means not only to me, but also to my coaches and the people I know,” Cronje said.
“It seemingly also means a lot to the public, because it must be the most attention a bronze medal has ever received.”
His achievement at the global showpiece could only be the start of greater things for the gritty athlete. He now had his sights set on the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and was also looking ahead, ambitiously, to 2020. – Sapa