By Stephen Granger

University of Johannesburg athlete, Ryan Mphahlele, turned in the performance of the night to win a thrilling men’s 1500m in the final event of the Athletes Academy Invitational meeting at Coetzenburg in Stellenbosch this week (Monday 28 March), missing out on a World Championship qualification incentive by a whisker.

In an evening of top-quality athletics, expertly run by Elana van Zyl and Janet Welham’s Endurocad team, no fewer than fourteen athletes exceeded 1050 points on the international scoring system – an encouraging sign of the current health of track and field in South Africa.

Athletes had every incentive to deliver top performances with attractive prize money awarded to the top five points-scoring male and female athletes on the evening and the light wind which prevailed was not enough to prevent a clutch of personal best times from young athletes with promising careers ahead of them.

UJ athlete Ryan Mphahlele ran his best ever 1500m, missing the world champs qualifying mark by just 0,36 sec. Photo: Stephen Granger

Apart from Mphahlele, Rustenberg-based Simon Mohlosi, local Cape hero Ashley Smith and the 1500m runners-up Jerry Motsau and Sibiya Nkosinathi were the prize-winners in the mens competition (all earning additional bonuses of R2500 each for bettering 1100 points), while the top three in the women’s 5000m, Tayla Kavanagh and the Van Graan sisters, Aynslee Minnaar and Kyla Jacobs, and the first two past the post in the 1500m, talented juniors Naledi Makgatha and Danielle Verster, grabbed the spoils in the women’s competition.

A cherry on the top for the athletes was the appearance track-side of the 800m legend of the 1980’s Freddie Williams, who was generous with his encouragement and advice to many of the athletes, and in particular 29 year old Mohlosi, who won the 800m in an excellent 1:46,62 – just half a second outside his best.

Williams, who raced in the colours of Pinelands and trained under Donald Timm, never lost an 800m race at Coetzenburg and he set new standards for the two-lap event in South Africa. His fastest time for the 800m was 1 min 45,13 sec.  Williams represented his adoptive country, Canada, at the 1992 Olympic Games and a number of world championship events.

800m legend Freddie Williams with 800m winner Simon Mohlosi. Photo: Stephen Granger

The 23-year-old Mphahlele is currently undergoing a bridging course in transportation and management at the University of Johannesburg, with a view to future academic endeavour, but it was the speed with which he managed his foot transport in the four-lap race at Stellenbosch which was particularly impressive.

Having run 3:36,86 just a week earlier at Green Point, Mphahlele gave his all in an attempt to better the qualifying standard of 3:35:00 for this year’s World Championship in Oregon USA in July and with it a bonus R10 000. Taking control over his main rivals, Potchefstroom Track Club’s (PTC) Jerry Motsau and Mphahlele’s UJ teammate, Sibiya Nkosinathi, in the final lap, a sub 3:35 time looked on, but Mphahlele tired in the final 200m to lose out by the smallest margin.

“It’s great to run a personal best,” said Mphahlele. “But I’m a bit disappointed at that 0.36 sec!  For some reason I didn’t kick as hard as I could have in that final straight. I know I could have dug deeper, but let’s see where we go from here.”

Splashing to victory – Ashley Smith powers through the final water obstacle on his way to a decisive victory in the 3000 m steeplechase. Photo: David Papenfus / Endurocad

Mitchell’s Plain-born Ashley Smith had two primary goals in the 3000m steeplechase – to improve on his personal best of 8 min 34 sec set at last year’s meeting and to run a competitive race. He succeeded on both counts, leaving top steeplechase performers Tumisang Monnatlala (PTC) and Rantso Mokopane (Hollywood Bets) trailing far behind when he crossed the line in 8:31,15.

“I’m pleased with my run tonight,” Smith said. “The World Champs time (8:22)was never really on at this stage of my preparation and I’m happy with the three second PB.  I’m also having to juggle between my history studies here at Stellenbosch and my training.  There’s a bit of pressure, as I have an assignment due this week!”

Smith’s performance earned him 1118 points, placing him a close third overall on the night’s performances behind Mphahlele and Mahlosi.

Rather than move to an inland venue and enjoy the benefits of altitude training, as many have done before, Smith is one of several talented young athletes in the Western Cape who are determined to stay and train at the coast and take on and beat their rivals from Gauteng and other inland provinces.

Bellville-based athlete, Anthony Timoteus, gives a fist-pump in triumph as he wins the men’s 5000m in a personal best time. Photo: Stephen Granger

Smith’s victory over Monnatlala and Mokopane represented a good return for those ‘remaining’ at the coast, while Cape Town Anthony Timoteus’ impressive victory in the 5000m, improving his personal best by a full 13 seconds to 13:36,11, was another.  Timoteus simply had too much firepower in the final lap, racing clear of Lesotho athlete, Toka Badboy, and pre-race favourite, KZN athlete, Mbuleli Mathanga, to win by 7 seconds.

“There’s a group of athletes in the Western Cape, including Ashley Smith, Nadeel Wildschutt and myself, who have chosen to pursue athletics careers and remain based in the Cape. Cape Town is our home, and we believe we have what it takes to beat athletes from Gauteng and North West Province,” explained Timoteus, who holds a degree in education from the University of the Western Cape.

“I have been coached by Zola Budd for just six weeks now, and I can already feel the benefits,” Timoteus continued. “She has created a very relaxed and supportive atmosphere in our squad and is a very caring person. I’m sure this will bring out the best in me.”

All time 5000m greats at Coetzenburg –  Aynslee van Graan, Kyla Jacobs, Elana van Zyl, Tayla Kavanagh, Alta Verster, Zola Budd and Rene Kalmer. Photo: Stephen Granger

The talented juniors, Makgatha and Verster, produced outstanding performances in the women’s 1500m, both qualifying to compete in the World Junior Championships in Columbia in July.

18-year-old Potchefstroom athlete, Verster, led for the first three laps before Johannesburg’s Vorentoe High School pupil Makgatha, 18 months her junior, took over in the final one to race to victory in 4:19,48 – 8 seconds inside her personal best and 10 seconds faster than the Columbia qualifier. Verster was less than two seconds behind at the finish, also well within the world standard for the juniors’ championship.

Twenty-year-old Durban athlete Tayla Kavanagh’s first visit to the Coetzenburg track was much-anticipated, following her world-class road performances over 10km in the past year. She was up against the talented Van Graan sisters – Kyla Jacobs and Aynslee Minnaar – who both owned best times for the distance some 20 seconds quicker than Kavanagh’s best of 16:03, set recently in Pietermaritzburg.

Inexperienced on track, Kavanagh was content to allow the Van Graans to set the pace, with older sister, Kyla (best time 15:43,41), dictating the running speed from the outset, closely followed by Aynslee (15:42,72) and Kavanagh.  Sports scientist Cian Oldknow and Cypress athlete, Thalia Charalambous, remained in striking distance in joint 4th place.

Aynslee van Graan (right) leads her sister Kyla Jacobs (left) and Tayla Kavanagh in the women’s 5000m. Photo: David Papenfus / Endurocad

With 600m to go Kavanagh moved to the front and immediately opened a gap which she held to the finish, winning in 15:43,40 – the 11th fastest time ever by a South African athlete for the distance.  Sydney-based Minnaar finished just two seconds down in second, with Jacobs a further six seconds back in third.

Interestingly, four former-elite 5000m athletes, whose times place them in the top fifteen on the all-time South African list, witnessed Kavanagh’s triumph. Elana van Zyl’s 14:44.05 stands in pole position as the national record, while Zola Budd’s 15:01,83 (on the same Coetzenburg track in 1983) ranks third behind current Olympian, Dominique Scott-Efurd. Budd, however, ran 14:48,07 while running for Great Britain.

Rene Kalmer, whose 15:35,0 places her seventh on the all-time list, attended the meeting as a manager with the Murray and Roberts club, while former Matie Alta Verster, also at the meeting, currently occupies 13th position with her time of 15:45,95, one position behind Kyla Jacobs.