You may never have heard of Keegan van der Merwe, but his story reveals in heartbreaking detail what happens when sports development is denied. It has a triumphant ending – beyond how quickly he can stop a clock – but remains a lesson in what can be lost when talent is actively neglected.
Van der Merwe’s desire to be a professional athlete burns so hot that the pain is etched on his face while he does training drills with his coach, Johnny “Jon-E” Dreyer. Despite his humble upbringing and late introduction to competitive athletics in 2016, he has become Western Province’s 200m and 400m champion six years after being discovered at a church sports day.
It’s a barely believable achievement, if you consider that he leaves home for training on an empty stomach, or a slice or two of dry bread if he’s lucky. He then travels 30km to Vygieskraal Stadium in Athlone from his home in Beacon Valley, Mitchells Plain. More often than not, Van der Merwe’s mode of transport is determined by how much money is available at home. When there’s no taxi fare, he has to cycle for an hour and a half or walk for nearly three hours through dangerous areas – and do it again to get home before dark.
“There were times when I had to take the train or ‘steal train’ to go home from training, and I had to sit on the roof because the train was so full. I said to myself this is part of the journey,” he says, unable to contain his emotions, which run painfully deep. “Obviously it’s dangerous, but that’s what I had to do to get to and from training.”
Van der Merwe has made peace with the constant hurdle of getting to training, knowing he is preparing himself for greater rewards on a different track, if and when things fall in his favour. “Now I see why I’m here on Earth. Next door, we had a drug house and on the other side there are people selling alcohol. We’re situated in between but still I’m pursuing my goal. There are youngsters in this street who are involved in drugs, but I want to show them that I’m in the same situation, no different. I’m also living here. I’m not attending any fancy places,” he says.
‘Don’t give me sunshine and roses’
In a sport that struggles to attract meaningful revenue locally and where organisational support for local athletes is inconsistent at best, Van der Merwe’s confidence in his abilities and his faith in external forces are admirable. The combination has served him well so far, though there are few guarantees that there’s still a career out there for him. At 26, he’s running out of time.
His best times of 47.03s in the 400m and 21.40s in the 200m are some way off South Africa’s best. Clarence Munyai holds the 200m record of 19.69s, while the 400m title sits with the world’s fastest over this distance, Wayde van Niekerk, at 43.03s. Not that Van der Merwe compares himself to the sport’s elite. It’s not helpful for someone in his circumstances.
“Yes, we look up to people like Wayde van Niekerk, but we cannot have a conversation with them. Yes, you can be inspired by them, but I would like someone to give me advice, even if it’s someone in my neighbourhood. I don’t know what it takes to be a Wayde van Niekerk. I would like to know what he did in those down-in-the-dumps days, when he wasn’t feeling motivated. They don’t post [on social media] about that. Don’t give me the sunshine and the roses, because that’s not going to get us through what we’re dealing with.”
Although he competed in inter-house competitions while at Oval North High School in Beacon Valley, Van der Merwe’s potential still wasn’t on anyone’s radar when he matriculated in 2013. The lack of a suitable structure at schools in his area meant he was largely unsupervised in his early developmental years of running.
“I don’t know if it’s just our coloured schools that don’t have structure, but I’ve seen it even after school. I helped out with training at my high school. I could see there was no development whatsoever, no structures put in place. I believe if better structures were put in place I could have gone much further,” he says.
Church sports day
It wasn’t until 2016, at the age of 20, that he was “discovered” at a church sports day. The opportunity was a godsend. “That was my spiritual and athletic breakthrough. When the church announced that there will be a youth sports day, I looked up in that meeting and I thought to myself, maybe this is my opportunity. Maybe someone will see me. I believed that if I put in the preparation and just worked hard and did my best, someone would see me.”
Someone did see him. Carmen Lewin and her husband Mark, who was a minister at the Morgenster New Apostolic Church in Mitchells Plain, were so impressed that they insisted he join an athletics club and made some phone calls. “A week later, I got a call. Ultra Athletic Club said I should come for an assessment. I started crying. I said to myself, you believed, you saw this coming.”
Sporting achievements take on a different meaning in the Van der Merwe household. Beacon Valley is an area ravaged by decades of injustice that have left residents far removed from opportunities for work and self-fulfilment. Mitchells Plain is where the apartheid regime relocated those classified as coloured to in the early 1970s, dispossessing them of their land and homes under the Group Areas Act. Crime is constant and so is the daily struggle for food and essentials that Van der Merwe’s family has been unable to escape.
“I’ve had many of those days when I’m at training and I feel down in the dumps. I just keep telling myself, jou ma makeer broodgeld (your mother needs bread money), even though I know the competitions now won’t give me money. But my goal is to give my parents a better life so that they don’t have to struggle.”
A dark-wood cabinet in the lounge is filled with Van der Merwe’s medals. The room gives way to a tiny kitchen with just the basics. Next to that is a makeshift workshop and storage area where Keith, Keegan’s father, made a pair of wooden starting blocks for him to practise with. It was the best his father could do for the son he hopes will live out his own lost dreams.
“I don’t want to live with regret. My daddy was an athlete too and he still cries when he watches sport. I don’t want that for myself. Yes, we need money. But no amount of money can cure regret,” Van der Merwe says. “I might only have bread to eat, but I’m happy because I’m pursuing something that I love doing and I’m not giving up yet.”
Nutrition, or the lack thereof, is a major unseen stumbling block on Van der Merwe’s career path. The correct balance is critical to his recovery rate and fuels an athlete’s success, yet as a provincial champion he receives no help from athletics organisations or sponsors. Athletes burn up to 800 calories an hour during training and need to replenish tired muscles before doing it all again the next day. Van der Merwe usually has to make do with whatever is available. Most times, it’s just bread.
“I’m still beating people who have three meals or more a day. I’m beating them by working hard. I’m not fuelled by natural things. God fuels me. There were many times I would eat three slices of dry bread, because I have to keep some for the rest of the family. I believe that when I pray upon that bread, that it works like chicken, or fish that your body would need. I would still run my times in training. For me preparation is inner belief. I believe there is something greater. So whatever I have to walk through, I will walk through that,” he says. “There’s no nutrition, but I give myself over to the training.”
Van der Merwe competed in Athletics South Africa’s recent national track and field championships at Greenpoint Stadium in Cape Town. He failed to make the final in the 200m or 400m, lined up as he was among the country’s best sprinters, most of whom have been running for at least 10 years. His performance highlights the need for earlier talent identification and better assistance in developing athletes at a high-school level in the province.
Van der Merwe now plans to focus on the decathlon and the 400m only, to stand a better chance of making it to the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024.
“I once told someone that athletics is my calling and they asked me, ‘What is the purpose of your calling?’ My purpose is to inspire. That’s why this hard life is temporary. These hard trials are to inspire people in the community who are in the same situation who think they cannot get out. You can. If you believe and hold on to that dream, you can definitely achieve it.”
Generations of denied dreams
Nevertheless, the pressure on Van der Merwe to make a success of his track career or find a regular paying job is immense. Pursuing his dreams is not making life any easier at home, where food is scarce and everything else seems like a luxury. The Covid-19 pandemic took away employment opportunities for his brother and his mother, who is a domestic worker, making his father the sole breadwinner.
“I fought against my parents, because we as the coloured community, after matric we say, ‘Gaat werk. Jy moet werk. Dinge gaan swaar hier (Go work. You must work. Things are tough here).’ I worked before, but I saw how it can swallow you up and kill your dream,” he says.
“Even here, there are many people with dreams, but because of their work they cannot pursue what they want. I meet them and I can see they’re dead inside, and I don’t want to die that death… No, no, no.”
Regret appears to be taking a toll on Keith, a quiet and shy man whose voice is drowned out by the slightest noise. He’s a postal worker who still spends too many days contemplating the denial of opportunities in his past. The family started out in Heideveld, outside the city, before moving to Mitchells Plain when Keegan was three months old.
“When I was younger, as we walked home from church, I would give the kids a head start of a few minutes and race them back home,” Keith recalled. “When Keegan got a little older, he became faster and faster. Eventually I told him he can no longer get a head start,” he laughs.
“I ran the Comrades and the Two Oceans ultra marathons, and other marathons. When I was in school, a teacher told me, ‘Keith, put a little more training and sacrifice, and you will make it.’ I didn’t do that. I regret it now,” he says as his eyes well up with tears. “From the morning until the night, I was running. But there weren’t any practices or gym work, or any supplements that we could use. There was nothing like that. I ate only bread.”
It’s this visceral hurt brought about by regret that the younger Van der Merwe wants to avoid. It’s a feeling he hopes never to encounter and it is the very thing that keeps him running faster and faster. Will he outrun it is perhaps a tussle between his body and his mind.
“The Olympics? I’ve run that race in my mind many times … beating Wayde van Niekerk in the Olympic final. I actually sweat a lot when I envisage my goals. I’ve run a lot of races and I’ve actually won,” he says. “Hopefully I can make that a reality soon.
“Ultimately, I don’t want to live with regret. And if I can inspire people to fully go after their goals and dreams, I might save someone from depression or being suicidal. There are many people who don’t want to be here. I don’t know about my parents and the goals that just went by the wayside,” he says.
“When I go to the track in the future, I will have no regrets. I will know that I have done this and they will maybe say my name on the loudspeaker: ‘We have an Olympic champion here today, Keegan van der Merwe.’ I see that for myself. I won’t wonder, what if? That question will never come from my lips. Even if I don’t reach that status, at least I tried. Because if you don’t try, there is nothing you can compare it to.”