Australian gold made in South Africa, polished Down Under
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CAPE TOWN - THIS was a massive week for Jean van der Westhuyzen, as he combined with Tom Green to stun Germany and win the Canoe Sprint K2 1000 metres final at the Olympic Games.
Van der Westhuyzen was wearing Aussie gold, but it was moment celebrated as much in South Africa as it was Australia, with Van der Westhuyzen’s uncle – and my best friend for the past 40 years – Craig Cloete leading the chorus of expectation and subsequent elation as the youngster did good on all his uncle’s predictions.
This was very much an Australian gold made in South Africa and polished in Australia, with the Cape Town-born and Michaelhouse old boy Van der Westhuyzen having represented Team South Africa at the 2016 Rio Youth Olympics.
Van der Westhuyzen’s father, Piet, a prominent business personality, relocated the family’s primary base to Australia four years ago, and Jean, the older of two brothers by a year, accompanied his dad and mother Rene.
What a performance by Jean van der Westhuyzen and Thomas Green!— Olympics (@Olympics) August 5, 2021
They give #AUS gold in the men's kayak double 1000m after a thrilling race!@planetcanoe #CanoeSprint @AUSOlympicTeam pic.twitter.com/OxB1i2Pebu
For the young Van der Westhuyzen it was a case of looking forward and not in the rearview mirror.
Van der Westhuyzen’s Olympic story is remarkable because he was one of the last Australian squad members to qualify for Tokyo’s Summer Olympics and he credits the good fortune of being based on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
It meant that while the wait to get to Tokyo, given the one-year postponement, was agonisingly long, it also provided him with an extra year to improve his craft in the water and complete his studies at Bond University.
“The Gold Coast is a pretty fortunate position compared to other parts of the world because we can still get out and train and move forward with our normal activities,” Van der Westhuyzen said on the Bond University website. “I embraced the postponement as a great opportunity.
Olympic GOLD 🥇 for Jean van der Westhuyzen and Tom Green in the men’s K2 1000m Final! 🇦![CDATA]>🇺![CDATA]>👏— AUS Olympic Team (@AUSOlympicTeam) August 5, 2021
OLYMPIC HISTORY! Australia has never won gold in men's K2 1000m in its 85-year history (debut in 1936)!!#TokyoTogether @paddle_aus pic.twitter.com/QgIbLNYGCP
We got another year of preparation, another year to sharpen our skills and to improve.”
Van der Westhuyzen credited Bond University with taking his sport to another level and also thanked the institution’s leadership for providing a platform that allowed him to balance his academic interests with his sporting aspirations.
Van der Westhuyzen has always been inspired by (2008) Olympic gold medallist Ken Wallace and (2012) Olympic gold medalist Murray Stewart, and the move to Australia meant he got to train alongside the celebrated two, with Stewart’s story very familiar to Van der Westhuyzen’s.
Stewart is also a South African by birth, but his move to Australia happened when he was 13-years-old.
“I have been following the Australian squad for a long time through social media,” said Van der Westhuyzen. “And now it is awesome to be training with Ken and Murray and to be a part of the squad. David Smith, who coaches me now, is also an Olympic gold medallist, so it has been huge to have them involved in my career.”
Van der Westhuyzen, purely on talent, may well have found his way to an Olympic medal podium had he stayed in South Africa post his matric year, but it is doubtful he would have flourished quite as brilliantly as he has in Australia, especially when you consider the sporting environment, the investment in Olympic sports and the excellence of who he trained with leading into the Olympics.
“I never thought I’d be as good as Murray, so the first time I beat him at training I was pretty shocked, but it gave me the belief that I could achieve the same as he did.”
And earlier this week Van der Westhuyzen was true to his belief in getting that Olympic gold.
Van der Westhuyzen, who at 15-ears-old, was the youngest South African to get a World Championship medal, in winning the K2 21 km marathon for junior boys.
There will always be love for South Africa from Van der Westhuyzen and he will always be a regular visitor to South Africa because of family, but Australia is now home.
“The country (Australia) has been unbelievable to me. I am super proud to be representing Australia at the Olympics and I’ll definitely hold our flag high.”
Van der Westhuyzen said this before the squad’s Olympic Games departure and this past Thursday, not only did he get to hold that Australian flag high, he and Green got to hoist it as Gold Medal winners.