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LJ and Co on track

By Mark Etheridge

It’s World Championships year and the country’s top track and field competitors will be using this weekend’s Yellow Pages senior nationals as a springboard to Daegu, Korea in August.

Traditionally championships have seen titles taking priority but with the lure of a share of the R200,000 jackpot up for grabs to athletes breaking SA records fast times and long distances also come into the equation.

Going into the championships LJ van Zyl is the form man of the season after his national 400-metre hurdles record and stunning personal best in the 400m flat. As matters stand that R200,000 belongs to him alone. Can anyone join him on the money-go-round? One thing is for sure though and this championships looks like throwing up some exciting racing.

Staying with Van Zyl and he has opted to run only the 400 hurdles and not the flat. This may have something to do with some unfinished business in his specialist event. Out to nail down his fifth senior title, the Pretoria athlete is looking for a third-time lucky scenario in Durban. This after having technical problems in 2009 and only finishing fourth and then being disqualified for a false start last year.

Certainly after his 47.66 record in Tshwane earlier this year, he’s in a class of his own but he’s given the likes of Cornel Fredericks, also already having qualified for Daegu, something to target. After nationals Van Zyl has already got invites to Doha (6 May), Rome (26 May) and New York (6 June) to look forward to.

Sprinting in SA is still stuck in the doldrums with a smattering of promising times coming at altitude but at the coast where it counts, the results have been bleak. Hannes Dreyer starts favourite in the 100m despite only having raced once this season and defending champion Simon Magakwe is back. Johan Rossouw’s 10.06 run back in 1988 looks ever so far away.

The women’s dashes will be see long-reigning Cindy Stewart of Port Elizabeth try and hold off Carina Horn in both the 100m and 200m. Zone VI champion Justine Palframan would also have been in the mix had it not been for injury but she’s expected to concentrate on her 400m chances.

In the men’s one-lapper Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius finds himself the favourite, given that Van Zyl is not running The Bladerunner has 45.61 best set in Pretoria and doesn’t say a whole heap about the form of the country’s other 400m racers right now, among them 2010 champion Ofentse Mogawane.

The women’s 400m also sees the country’s fastest, in the shape of Caster Semenya, sitting out as she’s running the 800/1500m double. Also sitting out, not through her own choice but injured, is SA champion Estie Wittstock. That leaves last weekend’s junior champion Anri Steyn as sitting fairly pretty right now. Palframan, with a 52.88 run in Swaziland late last year, would have fancied her chances but has run only once since a hamstring injury in February.

What could be one of the races of the weekend is the men’s 1500m. Last year it was Stephen Mokoko who won the 1500/10,000m double. This year he’s up against the country’s speedsters in the shape of Juan van Deventer and Peter van der Westhuizen.

Van Deventer (3:34.52) and Van der Westhuizen (3:35.97) were two of our quickest 1500m runners last year. Injured Johan Cronje was the other. Refreshingly, Van Deventer is looking further down the road. “I’m going to run hard in my heat and will try for a 3:38 or faster. It will be hard but I’m confident I should do it. If I recover on Sunday I’m going to go hard again. A fast time is more important than a win.”

Already Van Deventer is confirmed for the mile at the Prefonteine Classic in Eugune, Oregon and also the 3000m in Dakar.

United States based Peter van der Westhuizen is back in South Africa to run his first senior track and field championships in two years. His last race was an indoor mile in Iowa in early March. “That mile ended up being a time trial and I clocked a 4min 03sec which was slower than I hoped,” he told Road to London 2012. “However my training has been going exceptionally well and I’m hitting times in training that I usually only hit towards the end of my season so I’m excited to get the season underway.”

Van der Westhuizen last ran SA nationals in 2009 where he finished fourth “so I’m due for a good one”. Champion on that occasion was Cronje. “After SA’s I’ll be running the Kansas relays and Drake Relays against Alan Webb an Boaz Lalang so that will help me get into form to chase the A standard (3:35, for World Championships in Korea later this year) and the SA record later in Europe.

In the other distance events there’s still doubt about world champion Mbulaeni Mulaudzi’s participation in the 800m as he’s still struggling with an Achilles heel injury. As such don’t expect any great shakes when it comes to times.

Time though, will be of the essence in the women’s two-lapper where Caster Semenya bids to go under 2min for the first time this season before going on to fine-tune in Europe.

She’s run 2:01.77 just recently and if Mapaseka Makhanya is to defend her title succesfully it seems a done deal that she’ll have to run a personal best to do so.

The two short hurdles events will both be hotly contested with Lehann Fourie and Gauteng North team-mate Ruan de Vries set to slug it out in the mens’ 110m event and Claudia Viljoen favoured in the women’s 100m race with champion Rikenette Steenkamp still battling with a hamstring injury.

In the field events Khotso Mokoena, our only medallist from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing starts favourite but having only competed once on local soil this year after niggling injury, his crown is by no means sitting that comfortably on his brow. World junior champion Luvo Manonga is a regular beyond the 8m mark now and the SA junior champion Mpho Maphuto has also moved him up into that bracket.

In the women’s long jump, ‘veteran’ Janice Josephs is still the one to beat but Samantha Pretorius has lately leapt on to the scene and in fact leads the rankings this year with a 6.44m best.

The javelin will be worth watching to see if Malmesbury’s Robert Oosthuizen can build on his World Championship qualifying 83.82 at the opening Yellow Pages meeting in February. The women’s javelin again features the Potchestroom pair of Commonwealth champion Sunette Viljoen and Justine Robbeson. Viljoen has thrown further but Robbeson has come out on tops the last time the two crossed spears.

Last but not least, worth watching will be a lesson in longevity — veteran Chris Harmse, 37, will be hunting an incredible 16th national hammer-throw title!

The championships will feature television coverage on SABC 2 on both days — 12.30pm to 1.30pm on Saturday and 1.30-2.30pm on Sunday.


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