Cape Town - Just over a year ago, Luvo Manyonga made the difficult decision to leave his home in Mbekweni township near Paarl to move to Pretoria.
It was almost a matter of life and death, as the dreaded tik drug had virtually destroyed his athletics career, and may have wreaked further damage for the star long-jumper.
But he got out before it was too late, with the help of Sascoc president Gideon Sam and the Tuks High Performance Centre, which saw him live and breathe track and field again.
Now he is on the verge of competing in his first Diamond League event, as he will line up opposite another world-class long-jumper from Paarl, South African Ruswahl Samaai, in the Golden Gala in Rome on Thursday.
It’s been a dramatic turnaround for the 25-year-old Manyonga, who first made his name in 2010 when he became the world junior champion in Moncton, Canada with a jump of 7.99m.
He came fifth in the senior world champs in Daegu, South Korea a year later, and the world was at his feet. But Manyonga tested positive for tik at the 2012 South African championships, and was banned for two years.
And just when he was getting ready to return to action in 2014, his long-time coach Mario Smith from Stellenbosch University died in a car accident. He was still caught up in the tik world in Mbekweni, until Sascoc president Sam stepped in and ensured that he resurrected his career in Pretoria in time for the 2016 Olympics.
The organised environment at the HPC has done wonders for Manyonga, who produced an Olympic qualifying distance in his first competitive jump earlier this year in Pretoria with an 8.20m. In March, a new personal best of 8.30m followed at Pilditch Stadium.
Manyonga was back with a bang. “There are many reasons for the big difference in performance, but I guess the main one will be the quality hard work we put in last year,” his coach at Tuks Athletics, Neil Cornelius, told Independent Media on Wednesday from Amsterdam, while en route to Rome with Manyonga.
“Luvo is very dedicated and has an honest passion for what we do. We worked and trained very hard last year, but we also had an intelligent and well thought out off-season to prepare for the Olympics.
“He’s been with me for a year now and it took him a bit of getting used to his new training programme, but everything clicked well and we’re seeing the results from that.”
After the new PB of 8.30m, a terrific battle was expected at the SA championships at Coetzenburg in Stellenbosch between Manyonga, Samaai and Khotso Mokoena in the long jump. But Mokoena withdrew to concentrate on the triple jump and Manyonga picked up an ankle injury during the competition.
Samaai, though, was hard to beat on that Saturday morning, flying to an excellent 8.34m to win the title, with Manyonga ending way down the field with a 6.70m.
“We had a bit of right ankle trouble and Luvo was a little bit hesitant after his first foul,” Cornelius said. “At the third jump we decided to rather play it safe and smart and save him for the Olympics, so Luvo never went full out in his last attempt.
“Olympics has been the goal since day one, so we’ve had to make some tough, but in the end, smart decisions.”
But at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on Thursday night, Manyonga will have a chance to avenge his defeat to Samaai at Coetzenburg in the Diamond League. It’s a stellar field, with world and Olympic champion Greg Rutherford of Great Britain the headline act, along with world silver and bronze medallists Fabrice Lapierre (Australia) and Wang Jianan (China), as well as 2016 world leader Marquise Goodwin of the United States.
Goodwin’s season’s best is 8.45m, with Samaai second on 8.38m. Manyonga’s 8.30m places him joint-fifth alongside Rutherford on the world list this year, so he has a great chance of emerging victorious in his very first Diamond League.
Cornelius said that Manyonga has fully recovered from his ankle problem. “We’re both very excited for the opportunity to compete in Rome. We haven’t even thought of or focused on distance for Rome. Our main goal is to just jump,” the coach said.
“The distance will come with the right technique and jump, but focusing or thinking about distance takes our mindset away from where it should be – to jump.”
* Follow @IndyCapeSport on Twitter for live updates of the Rome Diamond League from 8pm on Thursday.