Updated 28 July 2008
L.J. (Louis Jacobus) VAN ZYL, South Africa (400m Hurdles)
Born 20 July 1985, Bloemfontein
1.86m / 75kg
Tuks University Athletics Club, Pretoria
Second of three children (elder sister, younger brother); parents, Japie and Martie, competed in athletics at school level, lives on a farm in Molteno District, northern Cape Province.
In a country where rugby claims most burly, strong and fast sportsmen at a young age, Louis van Zyl – who wants to be known as L.J. van Zyl - made what turned out to be the right decision to opt for athletics. He did so after playing rugby at South Africa’s popular annual provincial primary schools tournament. His many track successes, and his No1 ranking by the IAAF in the 400m Hurdles before the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, have endorsed his decision.
However, van Zyl’s failure to advance beyond the first round heats in Osaka was a major blow to him but also the best lesson he had ever learnt. It taught him to have more respect for all his opponents and now – on the eve of his first Olympics – he is much happier to be No.3 rather than the No.1 of a year ago.
Although his first names are Louis Jacobus, van Zyl has preferred to be called L.J. since he was a young schoolboy. To him it is almost as important as success on the track. A serious, quiet-natured and dedicated young man, he is determined to graduate in physical education in the foreseeable future and he loves to ride a horse when at home on the farm.
Van Zyl’s name appeared for the first time in the RSA Athletics Annual with a time of 22.6 over 200m in October 1999. In March 2000, at 14, he improved to 22.09 in Pretoria and, in his first serious 300m Hurdles race, on the same day, he produced a South African junior record (36.83). It triggered the talent that has blossomed since.
Yet van Zyl’s international career started on a low note. Selected to go to the 2001 IAAF World Youth Championships, in Debrecen, Hungary, and following times of 50.84 and 51.06 over the 84cm hurdles, and 51.14A (world fastest by a 15-year-old) over the senior (91.4cm) hurdles, he went to Hungary fancied for gold. But he was disqualified in his heat for dragging his leg. The lesson was learned - it has not happened since.
In 2002, at 16 (one day before his 17th birthday) van Zyl became World Junior champion in 48.89, a world best for 16 and 17-year-olds and the 6th fastest by any junior. In 2003, he won the national senior title in Port Elizabeth, defeating Llewellyn Herbert, but due to a switch of coaches, and with no global junior event to aim at, his progress stalled.
The 2004 World Junior Championships, in Grosseto, Italy, were a let-down after the dizzy heights of his 2002 triumph. Van Zyl failed to reproduce his previous form, finished 4th, and also failed to qualify for the Athens Olympics. This remains among his greatest disappointments to date.
Perhaps, though, it was a blessing in disguise. Van Zyl broke all ties with Bloemfontein and moved to Pretoria, where Hennie Kotze, a former 49.26 hurdler, became his new coach. The change was visible early in 2005 when van Zyl expressed a determination “to run in the low 48s towards the middle of the year and, most importantly, to be selected for the team to Helsinki (World Championships).”
As soon as the second week in February, van Zyl issued warning of what could be expected when he lowered his PB to 48.54 and booked his seat to Helsinki, where he finished 6th. Earlier, he had made his return noticeable with a win at the Athens Grand Prix and he ended the year with 3rd at the World Athletics Final, in Monaco.
With a brilliant win in 48.05 at the Commonwealth Games, in Melbourne, van Zyl started 2006 in sensational fashion and went from strength to strength with second places at the World Cup, in Athens, and World Athletics Final, in Stuttgart. Towards the end of the year, he underwent a minor leg operation but, come the 2007 summer season, he would be back in form.
Victory in the Golden League, in Rome in 2007, was most impressive and he also took the All Africa Games title in Algiers, a clear warning that he should be someone to be reckoned with at the World Championships in Osaka. His immediate targets were to medal in Osaka, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and to join the elite group of intermediate hurdlers below 48sec.
Now, a year later, the last two of those targets are unchanged. The first went by the wayside when, through an error of judgment, he was eliminated in the first round. Coasting to the finish in first place he relaxed, lost concentration, and four athletes slipped past him.
Towards the end of 2007 new headaches dawned. Firstly, with coach Kotze moving to Saudi Arabia, he had to find a new trainer. He also underwent a minor groin operation that had been troubling since Melbourne in 2006 and which delayed his 2008 competition schedule. He considers it a success because he has become stronger. His coaching problem was solved by joining forces with Herbert’s former trainer, Nico van Heerden.
Van Zyl made a cautious start to the domestic season with various minor placings but, come the national championships in mid March, he did enough to win the gold medal. Three fellow South Africa runners had already qualified for Beijing and van Zyl managed to book his seat only when winning the African Championship title, in Addis Ababa, in May.
While he was consistent in most of the Golden League meetings, the highlight of van Zyl’s campaign in Europe was at the Athens Grand Prix on 13 July, which he won in 48.22 to rank No.3 in the IAAF 2008 Top Lists. He refuses to speculate about Beijing, where he will consider every race from round one onwards a new challenge.
100m: 10.3Aw (2003); 10.5A (2001)
200m: 21.10w (2005), 21.20A (2005)
400m: 46.28A (2005), 45.9 (2007)
400m Hurdles: 48.05 (2006)
400m Hurdles: 2001: 51.14; 2002: 48.89; 2003: 49.22; 2004: 49.06; 2005: 48.11; 2006: 48.05; 2007: 48.24; 2008: 48.22.
2001 3rd World Youth Championships (medley relay)
2002 1st World Junior Championships
2002 1st World Schools Gymnasiade
2004 4th World Junior Championships
2005 6th World Championships
2005 3rd World Athletics Final
2006 1st Commonwealth Games
2006 2nd Commonwealth Games (4x400m)
2006 1st African Championships
2006 2nd World Cup
2006 2nd World Athletics Final
2007 1st All Africa Games
2007 q World Championships (eliminated in 1st round heats)
2008 1st African Championships
Prepared by Gert le Roux for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. © IAAF 2008.