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Visually impaired Naveen Daries beats Covid-19 odds to realise Olympic dream

Naveen Daries, left, has beat the odds to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Picture: Supplied, TeamSA

Naveen Daries, left, has beat the odds to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Picture: Supplied, TeamSA

Published Jul 24, 2021


CAPE TOWN - Naveen Daries has helped South Africa make gymnastics history after she qualified for the Tokyo Olympics by claiming a bronze medal at the 2021 African Championships, in Cairo, Egypt, last May.

By that time, 19-year-old Caitlin Rooskrantz, her fellow South African artistic gymnast, had already qualified for Tokyo. However, when Daries qualified, it became a historic feat for SA gymnastics because it was the first time Mzansi would have two females at the Games.

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Previously South Africa rarely had females at the Olympics. Antoinette Kuiters (1960, Rome) and Zandré Labuschagne (2004, Athens) were the pioneers, and now 17 years later, South Africa will have two.

The extraordinary feat about Daries’ qualification is that she is blind in one eye. She has represented South Africa at the World Championships from 2017 to 2019, and the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Two months ago it seemed like the Northern Cape-born gymnast from the town of Kakamas, would be stripped of her childhood dream of reaching the Olympic Games. She battled the odds at the qualifying event in Cairo. As a result of the coronavirus, Daries was inactive for over a year, and ring rust proved to be a problem.

“Yes, the African Champs in May was not my best competition,” Daries recalled. “It was the first time competing at such a big competition where I made so many mistakes. I am not one to blame or make excuses, but I can admit that it was tough being back in competition after more than a year of no international competition.

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“Gymnastics is a tough sport. We train many, many hours so that we do not fall and make mistakes. In the end, I am human. I had a bad day. I was relieved that it worked out that I still qualified.”

Daries’ coaches then designed a training regime to help her peak when the gymnastics get under way in Japan tomorrow.

“My coaches and I are on a programme that we believe will give me the best chance to be at my best in Tokyo,” she said.

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“After the African Championships, I stayed behind in Egypt for the Cairo World Cup a week later. There I qualified for four finals while competing against other Olympic qualifiers from around Europe. It proved I could compete with the best, and this allows me to go to Tokyo with confidence and great pride to represent South Africa.”

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Daries says the gymnastics community has been supportive, which is vital since she spends many weeks away from home. Her parents and coach have provided the biggest influence on her career. “They (coach Ilse Pelser and parents) have always been with me every step of the journey.”

Regardless of how she performs in Japan, Daries hopes to qualify again in 2024, when Paris will be the Olympic host city.

“For now, I want to remain healthy in Japan and gain as much experience from the Olympics as I can. I hope to have a clean competition and then hope to deliver a satisfactory performance.”

Donovan Jurgens, president of Gymnastics South Africa, is pleased that SA gymnasts will enjoy adequate support in Tokyo.

“We have two gymnasts and two support staff,” said Jurgens. “In terms of expectations, we are not expecting a medal in gymnastics. To even reach the Olympic finals will be a stretch. We want our gymnasts to compete in the true spirit of Olympism and give their best. They must stay safe, free from injury and free from the coronavirus.

“They must learn as much as they can, meet as many friends and live out their dreams of participating at the Olympics. On their return, they must urge young gymnasts to make their dreams a reality.”