Pierre Blignaut has fulfilled his lifelong dream of reaching the Olympics. The renowned South African shot put and discus coach has two athletes under his tutelage representing the country in the rescheduled Games in Tokyo.
Kyle Blignaut (not related to Pierre) and Jason van Rooyen made history by becoming the country’s first shot put athletes to throw above the 21-metre mark in the same year. Pierre, who coaches at the University of Johannesburg, was also appointed as the coach of the team at the Olympics.
The Zambia-born coach has had a distinguished career that has spanned 41 years. In the process, he has produced national champions and multiple record holders. The Olympics was the only major achievement that had eluded him.
“Of course I’m excited… [My athletes participating at the Olympics] is a result of hardship, perseverance and training throughout these years,” said an elated Blignaut.
The 72-year-old has gone through a lot in the past two years, including a serious operation for mouth cancer which was followed by chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. He had his palate removed and replaced with flesh implants from his hands as well as veins in his arms. Blignaut, who has produced multiple champions, shows he is made of stern stuff.
“I have come so far in life in the past two years, to be fair. At one stage, I decided to let Zane Weir [shot put star who has also qualified for the Olympics but will represent Italy] go because I didn’t know that I would finish the operation in time to prepare for the Olympics. Then Covid-19 came which helped us because we were not fully prepared to reach the Olympics qualifying mark. But I knew that Jason and Kyle stand a good chance of going to the Olympics. The signs were there from the training.”
Good performance and recognition
With the elusive Olympic dream achieved, Blignaut is cautious in his expectations for Tokyo. “I think it’s suicidal of me to put pressure on athletes by demanding them to win the medals in their first Olympics,” Blignaut said.
“It’s great to dream but we must be realistic in the whole thing. Let’s first get through the heat and reach the finals. But with God’s powers, it takes one throw with good technique to get good results. It’s good that my athletes have good rankings going to the Olympics, which is a morale boost. But it must be all in your head to produce good results. I need them to enjoy the experience as the build-up for 2024 to clean medals.”
The man who coaches at Noordheuwel High School in Krugersdorp says this Olympic feat matters most to athletes and remains optimistic that it will bring shining light to the future of the discipline in the country.
“Shot put and discus are not popular events in SA like overseas. Kyle told me where he is competing in the Czech Republic and Poland they love shot put and other throwing events,” he said.
“We get very little publicity in SA which results in sponsors not willing to support us. And that is why most athletes can’t cope because of financial difficulties and eventually quit the sport. But I think sponsors will start taking notice of the discipline because of what we have achieved. That is why we need a few world champions.
“I think we are close to getting more recognition and seeing world-class athletes coming from our country. This is why this Olympics is so important to me. We must use this presented platform wisely to benefit in the future. As I said, we must not just be happy to compete but we must try to make it to finals. And athletes must push themselves beyond their limits and clock new best times.”
In 2011, he opened the Pierre Blignaut Shot Put and Discus Academy with Eben Vermaas in Krugersdorp to encourage talent. Blignaut was an excellent athlete in his days. He was awarded Springbok colours in the master’s category in 1993.
“Being an athlete helped me to understand the feeling and the pain athletes are going through. But times are changing so you must be able to adapt,” he said
“I try to sit down with each athlete to understand [their] situation. Afterward, I shape [their] mind to focus on the bigger goals. Nothing worthwhile in life comes easy. Great coaches continually challenge their athletes to do better and push their limits – they inspire their athletes to believe in themselves by continually putting them in situations that challenge their limiting beliefs.
“They don’t allow their players to just get by with the status quo. They do this by pushing their athletes outside of their comfort zone, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and then helping them discover that they can do better than they first believed they could. They teach them the ‘get-comfortable-being-uncomfortable’ principle, which states that the only way to grow physically and emotionally is to constantly challenge yourself to do things that aren’t easy. In this way, I refuse to tolerate mediocrity in effort, attitude, technique, training or performance.”
Despite South Africa’s record in the discipline, Blignaut is optimistic that the country can improve. Performances of youngsters like Zonica Lindeque, who broke the South African Under-18 girls’ 3kg shot put record by producing a massive 18.18m in April, are encouraging.
“There are a couple of upcoming youngsters that I’m training who are going to achieve more than what we managed so far,” he said.
“This is a start. Zonica is one of the athletes I’m expecting good things from. She is currently ranked No. 1 in the world in her category. She is only 17 and she still has all the time in her hands. I also have Cian de Villiers, a great youngster who is currently No. 1 in the world [Under-20 5kg shot put]. He holds an SA Under-15 record [3kg] with a distance of 20.55m. He has been occupying the No. 1 spot even though he has been injured after twisting his ankle three months ago. So we are destined to see more athletes doing well at the world stage.”
Achieving his Olympic dream will not slow down Blignaut. “I have worked for this for a long time and I do not intend to retire before it is God’s will that my life ends and I am sure that it is not soon,” said Blignaut.
“My desire is that what took me a lifetime to learn and achieve must not go down with me in a grave, but must be carried over to the new generation. It has always been my passion to help other coaches where I can. I only wish that they would believe that. Eben is the same age as my younger son. Luckily I know that Eben, who has been with me for 14 years, shares my passion and beliefs and will continue what I started.”