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Beijing’s Boland blitz struck gold three times
- Updated: May 21, 2010
A pair of bright Blue Bulls rugby horns atop a helmet take pride of place on top of the television set in Hilton Langenhoven’s two-bedroomed Stellenbosch apartment.
Rather apt when one considers that this is a young man who, as the saying goes, has had to ‘give it horns’ not only in his sporting career but also in his very day-to-day experience of growing up.
Hilton Keith Langenhoven came into this world 27 years ago and it was a struggle from the start. His parents were workers on the Stellenbosch wine farms; there were alcohol-related problems and they split up when he was just four.
From that point he was raised first by his great grandmother Katrina, and after she died, by his ‘Aunty Joanna’ in Somerset West.
If that troubled upbringing was reason enough for a gloomy future, consider this: he was born suffering from albinism and extremely poor eyesight. Technically he has three and 60 sight. Put it like this: what the normal 20/20 sighted person can see at 60 metres, he needs to be at least three metres from. ‘It’s always been like this but after I finished school it actually got a few percentage points worse,’ says Langenhoven. ‘The worse thing about being a partially sighted athlete is that your balance is adversely affected so you have to constantly work on that.’
Given his setbacks, it’s all the more understandable to be in awe of the Langenhoven legacy that he laid down at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008.
Long jump was his speciality ÔÇô ‘that’s the event I find needs the most attention’ ÔÇô after he won silver at the 2004 Athens Games. Not only did he win the long jump, he also took gold in the 200m sprint as well as the pentathlon, giving him instant hero credibility.
‘I was probably expected to do well in the long jump because I was the world record-holder, but in the pentathlon I didn’t know what to expect because it was my first time participating in that event at international level.’
Will he be aiming for three more gold medals in London, 2012? ‘We have to see what events will be held in London. After World Championships in New Zealand in 2011 we should have an idea of which events the International Paralympic Committee is leaning towards.’
It was as a boarder in a Bellville South school hostel that Langenhoven first realised his talent. ‘The athletics coach didn’t think I had what it took but I broke the school javelin record the first time I threw. In boarding school you have to show your toughness to avoid being bullied so I took part in as many sports as I could; from ballroom dancing to cricket to rugby and athletics.
‘In fact, I’d like to do dancing again as it really helps your balance. Plus you get to meet nice girls, but there are only so many hours in the day,’ he says with a grin.
Part of the pain in his life has been associated with┬á┬á girls: he had a difficult break-up with the mother of his child after the Beijing Olympics.
‘I had a pretty bad time after the Paralympics. There was the relationship stuff and I picked up an annoying injury while doing lunges in training and one of the bones in my groin collapsed so I had to have an op in January 2009. Luckily it’s healed perfectly and hasn’t been a problem since.’
One thing he is making sure won’t collapse is the relationship between himself and his four-year-old son Whayden. ‘I see him at least once a weekend. He lives in Pniel and this past weekend I watched him compete in an athletics meeting. All the kids run just about every event, it’s all about having fun.’
Fun wasn’t something he associated with in the early stages of his career. ‘I suffered with shin splints. I was living in Somerset West and would walk seven kilometres to the taxi rank, travel to Stellenbosch for training, take another taxi and then walk the seven kilometres home again. The walking killed my shins.’
Those early days were something no kid should experience. ‘When I grew up in Somerset West my father was non-existent, my mom couldn’t cope so I moved from house to house with my aunt and then when she couldn’t cope I went to boarding school. Sport was the only escape for me. I spent 90% of my time at the hostel and I needed to be tough or good at something to be popular with the other boys because I wasn’t able to make financial contributions to be part of ÔÇ£the boysÔÇØ.’
Now that he’s just a hop, skip and a jump away from Coetzenburg Stadium life is looking a lot rosier for Langenhoven. ‘I have time for training, recovery and I get medical assistance. SASCOC looks after me financially and give me lots of support so things are looking good.’
Good enough to have the time to watch his beloved Blue Bulls rugby team. ‘I’ve always supported them. It’s a family thing, although I support English football side Liverpool to be different, because the other kids used to be big Manchester United fans.’
Langenhoven’s coach, sports scientist Suzanne Ferreira, is a huge fan: ‘At competitions, he is a dream athlete, focused and not drifting away with the size of the occasion. His mental capacity to absorb the pressure and use it to his advantage is something to admire.
‘He’s such a versatile athlete, which is his greatest asset. At his first senior international competition he won silver in javelin, in his second he won silver in the long jump, and then gold in track and long jump. And there was pentathlon at Beijing and he excelled to win gold with a world record, on less than a year of focused training. So I believe pentathlon is his best event. For me what stood out after Beijing, was his ability to focus so clearly on his goals for five days in a row, and still achieve PBs. That summarises the athlete that he is.’
A typical day of training, not as hectic as pre-Beijing where he logged up to seven hours daily, looks like this. ‘I go to the track at 7am and work out for up to two hours; then between 5-6pm it’s gym. Being in different events means I’m always focusing on different aspects, from strength to technique to endurance. I also try and get in a session of Pilates a week and aqua-jogging in the pool.’
Rugby was one of his early sports, but he also excelled at cricket and was part of the Boland team that thrashed their Western Province counterparts by 10 wickets in a blind contest. ‘I was in a mood that day and I hit 156,’ he says, without a hint of boasting.
Nor does he boast that he squats 200kg and bench-presses 100kg. Standing 1.77m tall, he weighs around 72kg. ‘If ÔÇ¿I was only a sprinter I would put on another five kilograms of muscle but I can’t do that, I’d lose out in other areas.’
Langenhoven has lost out in more than one area in his lifetime. But that hasn’t stopped him in his quest for more medals in London.
By Mark Etheridge
This article first appeared in the latest edition of Road to London, 2012, on sale now