Jakobus (Jacques) van Zyl’s first 100m sprints were to beat the family car when the younger ones challenged him to a race during weekly visits.
Little did the 81-year-old know that his running career, which only started in earnest after his 70th birthday, would end up with him clutching a bronze medal on an international podium.
“I am very happy about it because it is a learning curve second to none,” an ecstatic Van Zyl told News24 from Meadowridge, Cape Town on Thursday afternoon, a month after his race in Spain.
He said there were lots of rules and regulations to follow and he had faced off against “top-notch people”.
As a schoolboy, he competed in sports such as tennis and squash. But it was only in his later years that he hit the ground running.
“When I had children, I would run around the block with them. My middle son is an athlete and they would come to me on Thursday and Friday, when I would run after the car. The kids would say: ‘Oupa is being clever,’ and ask to drive faster but I would always find ways to win,” he explained.
“That is when my children said: ‘Hang on, you should participate in the [World] Masters Athletics’.”
He started running 100m and 200m, and this year, 400m.
Initially, he did not do so well. But when a top athlete extended an invite to train with him, it made all the difference.
Van Zyl’s son Dana, also an athlete, ended up training him for the international race.
“I never considered running 400m because it takes a lot of strength out of you. My children thought I would do better in the 200m [race] if I did 400m.
“I am not bragging, but this year I took part in four Western Province 400m races and on three occasions I beat the record!”
Dana said his dad was a great inspiration to him and his brothers, the family and the grandchildren.
Within a year of supporting their dad, they got tired of just sitting in the stands and took up Masters athletics too.
“My two eldest children are proud to be following in their Oupa’s footsteps and have distinguished themselves in cross-country.”
24 medals for South Africans
Van Zyl said the key to success was speed endurance training.
He competed in the 80-84 category of the 100m, 200m and 400m races at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga, Spain, last month.
The event, held every two years, attracts more than 8 000 athletes aged 35 years and older. South Africans bagged a total of 24 medals, according to the results page.
Van Zyl came third in the 400m race, behind Mack Stewart of the United States and Dave Dunn of Canada.
Sadly, Van Zyl’s wife, who had participated in events such as javelin and shotput, died a few years ago.
But Dana and his wife were there to witness the special moment.
No slowing down
“He said: ‘If you try and run at the pace we have been training on, then you should get somewhere.
“‘Keep that pace, you are going to keep that pace’, went through my mind the whole time during the race.”
As a reward for his training, they took time out to walk the Camino de Santiago trail in northwestern Spain afterwards.
Van Zyl, who also competes in cross-country in winter, said the cherry on top for him was the camaraderie between runners, no matter their age.
And for anyone who wanted to improve their game, he said they could follow his routine of running three times a week, going to gym a few times a week and training with someone who is a running expert.
Van Zyl has no intention of slowing down.
“I am going to try see if I can run a bit faster or maintain my speed because as you grow older, your energy and strength also comes down.”
Dana said that having a hand in his dad’s preparations for the world champs, and witnessing his medal win, was one of the proudest moments in his life.