Irvette van Zyl giggles. And then she goes “oh ja”. Sometimes she says “oh ja” before giggling. She does this quite often during an almost one-hour-long telephone interview because she is excited – but also very nervous.
Her excitement is because Van Zyl will line up for the Tokyo Olympics marathon on Saturday 7 August, making it to the ultimate event in her chosen sport. The nervousness has to do with previous experiences. Twice she has made it to the Games and twice she has endured heart-breaking misfortune.
It is those experiences that have got her cautiously anticipating the marathon. And the Covid-19 situation in South Africa was not making matters any better before she left for Tokyo on 27 July.
“Oh ja,” she giggles. “It is a tough time because I’m trying to be as safe as possible to avoid getting sick. We’ve long taken the kids out of school and [we are] keeping them here at home until I fly out to Tokyo because they could get it [the virus] from there and bring it home. When I go for a walk, I make sure it is safe to do so. I don’t even go to the shops anymore, it is all done online. I’m not taking any chances now.”
Not that her previous misfortune had anything to do with her not being careful. After all, injuries are part and parcel of the elite sportswoman’s life. “Oh ja, this will be my third Olympics. I went to the 2012 and 2016 Games, but I can’t call myself an Olympian yet because I have not finished a race there.”
In London nine years ago, Van Zyl was forced to pull out of the race before the halfway mark owing to injury. She manages a giggle now as she recalls the incident, but back then it was no laughing matter.
“In 2012 I ran until the 17km mark and then I withdrew. I had a severe Achilles tendonitis on my left leg. It was not nice. It was heart-breaking. Fortunately, the people couldn’t see me crying because it was raining so much and my clothes looked like they were wet from the rain and not the tears,” says Van Zyl. And giggles.
At the Rio Olympics four years later, she couldn’t even toe the start line. “In 2016, all the hard training was done and I was in Rio. But I was there for like just three days and had to fly back due to injury. It was like, actually, torture. It was heart-breaking.”
Forgive the Nedbank Running Club athlete then for being excited about this third opportunity. And as seasoned a marathoner as she is, forgive her too for wanting to just cross the finish line, irrespective of her time. When you’ve had your dream snatched away from you twice, as she has, just being able to take part and complete the race will be enough.
Doubt and disappointment
That she will actually be racing is a dream she didn’t foresee becoming a reality not so long ago.
“After the London misfortune I told myself I’m just going to put myself out of the next Olympics so that I can heal emotionally. Because after the first experience, you feel like the second time around nothing’s going to go wrong. The first time was disastrous so the second time has to go well, you think. And when it didn’t, I just told myself I have to give myself time to get over it,” Van Zyl explains.
Eventually she considered trying to qualify for Tokyo 2020, but found the qualifying time too fast. She then decided to go under the knife for an injury that had troubled her for a while.
“I didn’t get a race last year but then everything [including the Olympics] got cancelled anyway, so ja, we opted to go for a knee operation that was long overdue. I realised that with all the cancellations there was time to recover, because usually there’s no time to recover actually from injury. When you get injured, you try to go as quickly through the injury as possible and then do the rehab and the cross training to maintain fitness, so you can get back to racing.”
When she went for the operation in May last year, she’d anticipated being out of action for about two months at most. “Initially, there were six to eight weeks that would have seen me doing no running. But when the operation happened, the doctor came and told me he’s like, ‘Sorry, ‘but I think it is three to six months.’ And I was like, what!”
She giggles. “So ja, that gave me more perspective. Did I really still want to run? And it just gave me more motivation and this year when all the races got cancelled again, I was determined to get the races to qualify for the Olympics.”
Starting to believe
But with the Covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc all over, finding a qualifying race was always going to prove a mission.
“I only had one chance and that chance was slipping through my fingers so fast because I couldn’t get a visa. They were so tough to get. The initial race was in Hamburg, but we were banned from travelling to Germany. Then there was a plan B race and I couldn’t get an Italian visa until very late. I only got it that night at 12 and then flew out at six in the morning. Everything just snowballed so quickly.”
Having last raced in November 2019, when she won a third successive Soweto Marathon title, Van Zyl had no real idea of the shape she was in when she stood at the starting line in Siena, Tuscany.
“In the race itself I was so hesitant. I’d last run a marathon in 2019 and so much had happened after that. I had no indication what shape I was in because I’d only done track running, so I had nothing to show what [time] I could really run. But Nick [Bester, her coach] was telling me I can run a sub 2:30. I can remember very well the night before the race he messaged me with a short sentence saying, ‘If all goes well, you can run a sub 2:29.’ So I was starting to get it into my head that if he believes it, maybe I should too.”
She did and ended up running a marathon personal best of 2:28:40 to earn her ticket to the Games, where she is hoping it will be a case of third time lucky and she at least gets to the finish line.
“This was the fastest I have had to run to make the team. I needed a 2:28 this time and for 2016 it was a 2:32 and for London it was a 2:33. I am hopeful that my plan for the race should give me a good time to get to the finish line. That’s all I am really thinking of, oh ja, crossing the finish line,” she says. And giggles.