Sunette Viljoen shooting for gold at fifth Olympics

The javelin veteran, who has recovered from a back injury, is confident she can do something she has never done in her career at the Tokyo Olympics.

For Sunette Viljoen the last four years have involved frustration after frustration. 

So the 36-year-old javelin specialist has learnt to take it all in her sizable, athletic stride. She’s perhaps in a better position than most to deal with yet another unanticipated halt to her career’s advance in the form of a global pandemic.

In fact, the postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games from this year to 2021 could just work in Viljoen’s favour, given the sorry state of her lower back over the last few years. But it’s still a frustration after finally now being injury free and fired up to compete at the global showpiece.

“Since Rio 2016, I was constantly battling a lower back injury. But that’s javelin. Your lower back takes a lot of hammering during each throw and for me, it’s been 20 years of throwing,” she explained from her Johannesburg home.

“But the person I am, it never got to me. I kept fighting, kept training, kept believing, went from doctor to doctor, until two pain specialists helped me to get back into a throwing state again. I had to withdraw from the 2017 World Championships due to my back, but that’s sport. 

“I fought even harder to come back in 2018, but my back kept holding me back. I still managed to win my fourth consecutive Commonwealth Games medal at the Gold Coast in Australia. Then 2019 was again a frustrating year, but it’s the fire in my heart and the belief in myself that’s keeping my Olympic dream alive. I know what I can do, when I am injury free.”

Viljoen has only competed twice in 2020. Her best effort was a 58.30m throw in Pretoria in March. Her personal best is 11 metres further than that, but she was on the way up. Had everything gone according to plan, she would have competed in the SA National Championships in Pretoria from 23-25 April, where she was targeting the 64m qualifying mark for Tokyo. She was also due to compete at four of the lucrative Diamond League meetings. But that has, of course, all changed. 

More than missing out on achieving the qualifying mark, the current break in all international competition means, like many across the world, she’s unable to earn a living. So while it is mentally and physically tough, the lockdown is hurting her pocket more than anything else.

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“I see this postponement as a positive in terms of being 500% ready but the thing that is really bad about this pandemic is the financial loss due to the fact that we can’t compete. I really hope that the World Athletics season will still happen later this year, but the uncertainty around Covid-19 makes it so difficult to plan. I think all athletes are in this position, not knowing, where their next income will come from. 

“We need funding to survive until we can start competing again, but we don’t know when that will happen. I will have to find some other work this year if there is not relief coming from somewhere.”

South Africa’s Department of Sport, Arts and Culture have made R150 million available in a relief fund to assist athletes and artists. The department revealed that the cap for the fund for each artist or athlete is R20 000. While Viljoen is grateful she did indeed receive her allotted portion, it’s a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of rand she’s lost out on by not being able to compete.

Making the most of the lockdown 

Despite the uncertainty of the current situation, Viljoen is forging ahead with home-based training for now.

“I am training on the F45 app, it is a home workout every day for 45 minutes. These workouts are gravity based and you just need a small space to do all the movements. It originated in Australia and it’s a new form of functional training which I enjoy very much,” she explained. “I also brought a lot of stuff from the gym to keep me busy. I adapted very quickly and got into a routine so I am training every day to keep myself healthy and strong. I also just got into a new training and eating programme with USN and the Daily Dietician.” 

Many might have thought Viljoen would call it quits after finally getting her hands on an Olympic medal in Rio four years ago at the age of 32, finishing second behind Croatia’s Sara Kolak for the silver. It was something of a redemption mission after finishing an agonising fourth in London in 2012. 

“London hit me very hard emotionally, but I was not half the person I am today. I wanted to win so badly that I focused on the wrong things, being outcomes-based and not focusing on the small things. It was not only an athletics journey to Rio but also a personal one. Then to have won that silver, made me so proud, in so many ways,” she said. 

Having conquered that lost opportunity in London, Viljoen, who also boasts the distinction of representing the country in cricket, is still eager for even more. Silver is not enough. She wants the gold, and she wants to compete at an unprecedented (for a South African) fifth Olympic Games. That’s what has motivated her through the last four, pain-peppered years.

“I haven’t achieved yet what I want and that is being the Olympic champion,” she said. “That has been my life-long dream. I am the type of person that will fight for something until I get it. My dream is to win Tokyo and to fulfil my Olympic dream.” 

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Speaking about the prospect of competing at a fifth Games, she added: “It will be very, very special. It will be over a period of 20 years. Athletes just want to be called an Olympian, I will be a five-time Olympian, it makes me very, very proud.” 

And the extra year to prepare could be just what she needed.

“I made peace with the postponement immediately. It was inevitable. With the Covid-19 pandemic all over the world, there was no chance that the Olympics could have been hosted in its full glory. It gives me more time to recover optimally and be in 70m shape come Tokyo next year.” 

70m would be 65cm further than she’s ever thrown before, but Viljoen is full of confidence that is possible.

“I will always believe in myself and back myself. I am injury-free again. The only thing I need is to get back to competition fitness and only time will tell when our athletes will be able to be on an athletics track again. I have trimmed down a lot and physically am in very good shape. I am on a new training and eating programme, so I will use this year to find my rhythm and distances again and come 2021, I will be as ready as can be.” 

Considering the last time she threw over 66m was five years ago, does she believe gold is a realistic prospect in Tokyo?

“Oh yes, for sure! I don’t have a second of doubt about that. Through the power of Jesus Christ I can do anything. I am in Him and He’s in me and that makes me even more powerful. 

“The World Championships in Doha last year was won with 66-something. To win the gold, I will have to throw further than 67 meters,” she reckoned.

Still going strong 20 years later 

Even if she achieves that, she still won’t be finished. While Viljoen has contemplated life after athletics and how she’ll set up a School of Champions, there’s no hint of hanging up that javelin any time soon. A big part of that is the support she receives from her teenage son, Henré, and the example she’s setting for him.

“Henré will turn 15 this year and he has been part of me and my athletics career even before his birth. 

“He is a great sportsman and I enjoy watching him very much. We enjoy watching and supporting each other. I hope through my determination and drive I set an example for him for what it takes to reach the top. 

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“I have no plans to retire, I want to win a World Championship. I have a silver and bronze. My focus will shift to 2022, where we will have the World Championships and Commonwealth Games two weeks after each other. I will know when the fire and drive are not there anymore, I am not close to that. If I stay injury free, I will do it.”

She has come back from an unexpected pregnancy at the age of 21 to win Commonwealth Games gold eight months later. She has bounced back from deep disappointment of an under-par performance in London with a medal in Rio. She’s hoisted that aluminium spear further than any woman on the continent on a consistent basis for the past 20 years, and most recently triumphed over years of injury. So, you really would not put it past her.

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