Becoming a world-class athlete takes years of dedication and single-mindedness, coupled with patience and a thick skin.
To reach the top of a chosen discipline, a certain level of adversity must be overcome. But for some the challenges en route are far more severe.
Growing up in the Amsterhof district of Paarl, in the Western Cape of South Africa, an area infamous for drugs and gangsters, long jumper Ruswahl Samaai could so easily have fallen down the path many had travelled.
“I saw people doing drugs. I saw people being shot. I saw a lot of things in life,” he said. “It’s so important to stay away from anything negative, to surround yourself with positive hard-working people, those who are going to motivate you to achieve your goals.
“The most important things are faith, dedication and hard work and a lot of support, because without these things you’re nothing.”
On Saturday night at the IAAF World Championships London 2017, his years of perseverance in the face of severe hardship finally came to fruition, as the 25-year-old claimed the bronze medal in the men’s long jump with a final-round leap of 8.32m.
“I’ve been working towards this medal, so there are a lot of emotions going through my mind, going through my body,” he said. “I’m just embracing this journey. This medal represents the struggle I’ve been through, and I’m just grateful to get to stand on the podium and represent my country.”
In a competition won by fellow countryman Luvo Manyonga, Samaai was sitting out of the medal places in fifth position as he stood on the runway for his penultimate jump, having endured an inconsistent competition up to that point, fouling on two occasions. But the South African found an answer, recording a mark of 8.27m to overtake 2013 champion Aleksandr Menkov on countback, before extending his margin with his final jump.
“Menkov was in third position for a long while but I knew I was going to get it. I just needed to get on the board and execute.”
Along with his three siblings, Samaai was raised single-handedly by his mother Minnie, growing up in a shack in Amsterhof, with basic shelter that struggled to keep rain out. In such testing surroundings, he saw his athletic talent as a path towards a better life.
“I’ve always been athletic,” said Samaai. “For me the most important thing was sticking to the things I did, sticking to what I knew, to what I had to do, and to my plans. There is a lot of hatred from where I come from and people don’t want to see you succeed. I never wanted to associate myself with gangsters.”
Samaai’s natural athletic ability was spotted at an early age and he received a scholarship at the Paarl Gimmasium High School, one of the most prestigious schools in South Africa. During his time here he also flirted with rugby union, before dedicating himself fully to athletics.
Despite the scholarship, the path to developing his talent as a long jumper was arduous. Every day he had to endure a long walk through the most dangerous parts of his home town, just to be able to train at his nearest track, sometimes having to balance long hours of work in a factory to help support himself.
“I had to walk 10km to the track and back every single day,” he said. “There were times when I had to work in 2012. I had to work a 12 hour shift, get out of work, go straight to the track, train up until 11pm, and then walk the 10km back home. Then the next day I’d have to do the same routine. It has been a rollercoaster ride for me, but it has all paid off.”
The first signs that Samaai was ready to make the step up to the world stage came in 2014. The South African leaped over eight metres for the first time, and took home two major bronze medals, at the African Championships in Marrakech and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. In early 2015 he jumped 8.38m in Stellenbosch, but a succession of hamstring injuries halted his progress over the following two seasons.
“In 2015, leading into Beijing, I was one of the favourites to get a medal. I was injured. Last year at the Olympics I jumped with two hamstring strains and I got ninth place.
“This year we just took it slow. We went slowly into the competitions, just maintained the strength and conditioning, and we knew if I was going to be injury free in London I would get on the podium.”
With his first global medal secured, the South African believes he is destined for greater things in the sport in the years to come, provided he can stay healthy.
“I still want to compete in this sport for many years,” he said. “I see myself as an Olympic medallist, I see myself as an African record holder, maybe even a world record holder. You never know what might happen.”
That’s all for the future. For now, with his goals for the season accomplished, Samaai is excited to get back to enjoying one of his other big passions – golf.
“I like to play golf. I’m a big golf fan. I don’t play off a handicap, I just play for fun. Right now, I’m actually missing getting out onto the golf course, or even just the driving range. I can’t wait to get to play again.”
Given his endeavours on Saturday evening, nobody would begrudge him that.
James Sullivan for the IAAF