Inspired by the success of his compatriot Wayde van Niekerk, South African hurdler Cornel Fredericks is looking to put behind him a frustrating 2015 season and make the podium at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Van Niekerk won a memorable 400m final at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015 but Fredericks could only look on from afar, at home in front of a television, after achilles problems and then a hamstring tear contributed to him being forced to bring his season to a premature end.
Fredericks had started this year as a potential 400m hurdles medallist in Beijing after an outstanding 2014 when he won his specialist event at the Commonwealth Games, African Championships and IAAF Continental Cup.
He placed second on the 2014 world list following his 48.25 run at the IAAF Diamond League final in Zurich, the second-best time of his career after the 48.14 he ran in 2011.
However, Fredericks’ dreams of making the podium in the Chinese capital, breaking 48 seconds for the first time and possibly even challenging LJ van Zyl’s national record of 47.66 started to evaporate when he began to suffer from achilles problems last winter.
Fredericks confessed that he went slightly off the rails because of his severe frustration.
“There were times when I was still out and about in the early mornings," he said. "I wandered about aimlessly, not really caring about anything. I began to eat all sorts of junk food because I could not see any reason why I should stick to a healthy diet if I am not able to race."
Back to business
“I tended to do some other irrational things as well. In short I was really down and out. Luckily I have wonderful friends and family who really cared, especially my mom, Maureen. They made me realise that I have unfinished business on the track and that it would be foolhardy of me just to let go of my dreams and goals.
“I also had time to think during a five-week holiday (after a brief three-race 2015 season which ended with a disappointing last place at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London back in July) and I came to the conclusion that I still have the hunger to become one of the best 400m hurdlers in the world.”
Fredericks’ disappointment that he was in no condition to do himself justice in Beijing can be contrasted with the pride he takes when talking about his national team and his ambitions for Rio.
“There is nothing more special to me than representing South Africa at a major championship," he said. "When I do, it is important to me to do my utmost to win a medal for South Africa.
“That is why it hurt when some people said that I deliberately chose not to run in Beijing. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“As luck would have it, I picked up a small hamstring tear. It was nothing serious but given my experience with previous injuries I decided the risk of racing (in Beijing) was just too great.
"I was certainly not able to run flat-out and I really did not want to end up having to do another three months of rehabilitation. That is why I withdrew from the World Championships.”
In a bid to recapture his form of last year, Fredericks will swap his usual training base at the University of Pretoria High Performance Training Centre and be based in England for some of the coming months, and packed his bags last Sunday (18).
He will be guided by the renowned coach Malcolm Arnold, the former mentor of British 110m hurdles great Colin Jackson and who also coached John Akii-Bua to an Olympic 400m hurdles gold medal in 1972.
“Malcolm is a strict coach who does not hesitate to call a spade a spade if he thinks it will help his athletes to excel,” said Fredericks.
Fredericks is also of the opinion that South Africa can make an impact in the 4x400m in Rio, despite not having a team in Beijing, and he has made himself available for selection.
His own 400m personal best stands at 46.90 from 2010 but, apart from a solitary outing in 2012 without the barriers, he has not run a competitive 400m for five years and is clearly capable of going much faster.
“I think it would be exciting to run the 4x400m relay. You only need three good 400m athletes because Wayde van Niekerk will do the rest.
"I think South Africa could be able to win a medal in the relay, but I need to know by March whether or not I would be expected to take part," he added. "It is one thing to run a 400m hurdles race, but something quite different to run a flat 400."
Wilhelm De Swardt (University of Pretoria High Performance Centre) for the IAAF