Hennie Kotzé is still prolific in athletics. Photo: Reuters
 Hennie Kotzé is the closest thing to an alchemist. He takes athletic potential and turns it into gold.

His alchemy has touched a host of local and international athletes who have shone the brightest under his guidance. Kotzé’s list of successes includes a world champion, two Commonwealth Games champions, and world record-breaking continental champions.

Two of his former charges, South African record holder LJ van Zyl, and Alwyn Myburgh, may have retired but Kotzé is still going strong. The World Student Games 400m hurdles record of 48.09 seconds Myburgh posted in Beijing in 2001 still stands, while Van Zyl’s Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games mark of 48.05sec remains unbeaten.

Four of Kotzé’s athletes have dipped below the magical 48sec mark and he may soon have an athlete who will duck under 47sec. Kotzé, a former Springbok athlete, held the SA record in the 400m hurdles when he ran 49.26sec in 1983.

“I had a good mentor, Bessie Windell, who was my coach, and I dedicate a lot of my success to her,” Kotzé said.

“She took a holistic approach to coaching, and if you coach with your heart then you can achieve wonders.”

His latest charge, Qatari sensation Abderrahman Samba, is one of the most exciting talents in track and field at the moment. Kotzé speaks fondly of the one-lap hurdles  possibly the love of his life  and his ability to take what could be considered average 400m athletes and turn them into stars.

It's the eve of the Paris Diamond League meeting and Kotzé is chatting with athletes in the dining area.

We get interrupted by one: “Hennie is one of the best hurdles coaches in the world.” It is easy to see; three years ago Kotzé produced his first world champion, Kenyan Nicholas Bett. 

Bett’s meteoric rise cemented his status as one of the event's legends, despite his previous successes with the likes of Van Zyl. Kotzé has done the same with Samba, who only took up the hurdles a year ago, with the Saudi-born athlete being tipped to threaten Kevin Young’s world record of 46.78sec.

Samba raced to a new Qatari record of 47.41sec at the Stockholm Diamond League meeting earlier this month launching him into 14th place on the world all-time list.

It is an immense achievement considering it was only his 14th one-lap hurdles race, of which only one was slower than 50sec. Asked about his charge’s potential to dip below 47sec, Kotzé just chuckles: “Wouldn’t that be nice.”

Even though Kotzé also coaches other events, he tests these athletes over the hurdles to see whether he can unlock their hidden potential. The hurdles are, after all, his first love.

“Sometimes we laugh and then, at other times, I see something that I like and I will go ahead and test their potential in a minor race,” Kotzé explains.

“I like to test 400m guys for the hurdles because I think there are a lot of good flat 400m athletes that would do well in the hurdles.

“If you are able to master the technique and the stride patterns then you may be able to achieve a lot more than in the 400 metres.”

The conversation inevitably moves towards the lack of confidence South Africans place in our own coaching talent. Kotzé has, over the years, moved between South Africa and the Middle East, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar have ultimately offered him the opportunity to live out his passion and earn a decent living.

“It would have been great to have a full-time position in South Africa but on the other side, you grow incredibly has a person when you get to work with different cultures,” he said.

“People from the outside admire South African athletes’ achievements and it is disappointing that we don’t have more full-time coaches.

“Passionate and successful coaches are supposed to be earning a worthwhile salary. They are not to end up penniless.”

Kotzé has some regrets for leaving some of his South African athletes in pursuit of greener pastures, but passion alone cannot feed a family or provide a pension. South Africa’s loss is Qatar’s gain and who knows, Kotzé’s alchemy may soon turn his passion into gold, gift-wrapped in another world record.

* De Villiers is in Paris courtesy of the IAAF


Sunday Independent

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