Louzanne Coetzee ensured South Africa had one last podium performance to celebrate before the Paralympic Games came to an end in Tokyo on Sunday.
Having already claimed silver in the T11 1500m for visually impaired runners during the week, Coetzee took bronze in the T12 marathon with guide runner Claus Kempen to bring the country’s total to seven medals from these Games.
To top it all off, the Bloemfontein star did it in world record time, claiming the last athletics medal up for grabs in Tokyo.
After focusing her training efforts on the track, Coetzee lined up for the marathon with very few expectations, but she moved up from fifth to third position with around 12km to go and held on to finish in 3:11.13 – taking over a minute and a half off the previous T11 world record.
Japan’s Misato Michishita took the gold in 3:00.50 and Elena Pautova the silver. Both runners compete in the T12 class, meaning they have less visual impairment than the T11s.
“What makes it so special for me is that it’s a mixed class event. I was running against T12s and 11s and I didn’t go into it with many expectations,” said a thrilled Coetzee after the race.
“We’re very blessed with how the race went. I’ve run a few terrible marathons but this one was really nice. I won’t do it again tomorrow but it was enjoyable,” she added.
“I’ve been in the sport for eight years, so this is a real blessing and privilege and I think the fact that I waited for this moment for eight years makes it so much more special.”
Coetzee’s family and friends who stayed up to watch on TV in the early hours of the morning would have held their breath as the pair stopped running just outside the stadium.
“I kept her humble,” joked Kempen. “I was cramping. I’ll tell the story that I was trying to savour the moment, but I was just tired.
“I’ve never really watched Formula One but I’ve watched people going in for pitstops and change tyres so I thought we’d try that. On a serious note, I was really buggered – I got cramps. I never cramp so this is really a special race for me, my first cramp and a medal,” he added with a laugh.
“As Louzanne said, things can really go pear-shaped so you have to concentrate until the end. We were fortunate enough to have a big enough gap so that we could relax and walk it off.
“She’s an absolute champ. For someone who focused only on speed work, this was a pure mental race for her. It just shows you, she can do the spectrum from 400m up to 42km.”
Coetzee was later selected as the flagbearer for team South Africa at Sunday’s closing ceremony. Asked whether she’d still have the legs for it, she quipped: “I just hope Klaus doesn’t cramp because we can’t stop… he’s going to have to ‘vasbyt’. But no, we’re very excited to carrying the flag and represent the country that way as well.”
The 28-year-old is the second South African to win two medals at these Games, after Ntando Mahlangu’s double gold – in the T63 long jump (with a T61 world record) and the T61 200m. Anruné Weyers (T47 400m) and Pieter du Preez (H1 time trial) claimed the country’s other two golds while Sheryl James added a bronze in the T37 400m.
That saw the country finishing 34th on the medal table, and fifth in Africa behind Tunisia (28th), Algeria (29th), Morocco (30th) and Nigeria (33rd). China once again topped the table with 96 golds, with Great Britain second and the USA third.
For South Africa, that haul of seven is well down on the 17 won in Rio five years ago and 29 from London four years before that, but it’s significantly more than the Olympic team’s three medals. They’ll be hoping a smoother build-up to the Paris Games in 2024 with fewer Covid complications will lead to a greater return.
Meanwhile, spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Craig Spence hailed the success of African athletes in Tokyo.
“We’re seeing more medals in Africa this time than any previous Games. It’s not going to change overnight, but we’re seeing growth, and that’s what’s most important,” he said.
“And if you’ve got the development programmes in place in Africa, plus more TV coverage, that encourages more people to go into those development programmes.
“We’re going to see even more growth, but there’s no magic switch where we can just flick it, and suddenly we’ve got all these medallists from Africa, because the third element is the affordability of assistive technologies.
“And when all that comes together, we should see far more progress, but it will take a number of years to really come to fruition.”We’re heading in the right direction, but we’ve still got work to do. And we will work as hard as we can.” – SuperSport