LJ van Zyl – Master of the Hurdles
The first time I started to feel “old” was in December of 2002. I was in JBay on holiday when I heard a familiar voice shouting something I was not really familiar with. “Oooom, oom! Oom Manfred.” That’s when I realised that familiar voice was actually calling me. It was LJ van Zyl who was also on holiday in Jeffreys Bay too that year.
I had first met him in September, 2002 when I travelled to Bloemfontein to interview the latest phenom in the 400m hurdles. At just 17 LJ had decimated the World best Junior athletes over the 400m hurdles to win the first major global medal of his career when he took gold at the 2002 World U20 Championships in Kingston, Jamaica.
When I interviewed him, LJ was not shy, but definitely deferential. He never lost that attitude as he matured over the years, but he was an easy going young man and easy to talk to.
Making a Statement
As if winning that global title wasn’t statement enough, what LJ produced a year later at the South African Senior Championships certainly was. Picture this. In the men’s 400m hurdles final was the great Llewellyn Herbert, Ter De Villiers (2000 World U20 400mh Silver Medallist), Ockert Cilliers (2000 World U20 400mh Bronze Medallist), Alwyn Myburgh (2001 World University Champion 400mh). What a stellar line up. One would think that a still only 17-year-old would feel intimidated right? But no, not this one. LJ had no fear and proceeded to cause the upset of the Championships by winning the SA Senior title – from lane 8.!!! It was partially Herbert’s own fault that LJ was so fearless. It was he who had demonstrated how successful such a mindset could be.
Racking up the titles
Over a career spanning 17 years, LJ racked up the titles. He has laid claim to 10 National Titles, a Commonwealth Games title and Silver medal in the 400m hurdles as well as a Silver in the 4x400m Relay (Melbourne 2006), a silver medal in the 2011 4x400m relays to go with the 400mh Bronze Medal he won at the World Championships to name but a few.
2011 was probably LJ’s best year. On his way to that World Championship Bronze, LJ made an emphatic statement. In wet conditions, so not ideal for hurdling, LJ stunned the world. He blasted out of the blocks and just never slowed down at the Yellow Pages meeting at Tuks on 25 February. When crossed the line in 47.66sec he had sliced 14/100 off the South African record set by Llewellyn Herbert at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000. That time immediately made him more than a medal contender for the World Championships later that year in Daegu. It made him favourite to win.
Injury shortly before the World Championships set him back and he had to settle for the Bronze behind Dai Greene of the UK and Javier Culson of Puerto Rico. LJ found himself in lane 8 and had no choice but to be aggressive as he was running blind. That aggression cost him and he faded in the home straight, having had to watch Greene and Culson fly past him.
The 4x400m relay was a real thriller. After the first changeover South Africa bolted into the lead due to a devastating surge from Ofentse Mogowane. He though paid the price for that aggressive running and handed the baton over in second with Jamaica leading. And that’s how it stayed until the final 100m when America’s LaShawn Merrit put on a surge of speed that left the rest standing. LJ was able to fly past Jamaica’s Leford Green to earn the Silver Medal for South Africa.
2011 was indeed a purple patch for LJ. In the lead up to the World Championships, he was victorious in two Diamond League races, in Doha on 6 May and Rome on 26 May. He also won the 400m hurdles race at the Golden Spike Meeting in Ostrava and went sub 48 seconds in no less than four races that season.
There was good reason why South Africa put LJ on the anchor leg of the 4x400m relay in 2011. LJ had shown that he was a like a bull on the charge when given the baton on the final leg of a 4x400m relay. In 2006, after winning 400m hurdles gold, LJ was the anchor leg for the 4x400m relay in the final at the Commonwealth Games. He was handed the baton in 5th for the final 400m. By the end of the race he had not only clawed his way past the 4th, 3rd and 2nd, but had the track been a bit longer, he may well have won South Africa the gold medal. Such was the devastating speed of LJ.
That LJ was an incredible talent was never up for discussion. From that very first title on in Kingston, Jamaica, LJ would show his versatility. Boasting bests of 32:32 for 300m and 44:86sec for 400m. But it is his 47.66sec in the 400m hurdles that really stands out. It ranks him in the top 25 on the global all-time list and in 2011 it was the fastest in the world.
Now that his career on the track has come to an end, LJ can be found lecturing at the University of Pretoria where he was named as the University's athlete of the century. van Zyl teaches Sport Science Education at his beloved Alma Mater and is studying towards his Masters Degree in Olympic Studies, Athletes Career Transitions and Physical Education through the Deutsche Sporthochschule Köln (German Sport School in Cologne).
He is also still closely linked to Global Sports Management, the company that for so many years represented him. And when he is not found on the campus of Pretoria he can found on his cattle farm close to Craddock where he first ran on a dusty track that his father built for him.
2008 Beijing: 5th – 400mh
2011 Daegu: 3rd – 400mh
2001 Daegu: 2nd – 4x400m relay
2006 Melbourne 1st – 400mh
2006 Melbourne 2nd – 4x400m relay
World Continental Cup
2006 Athens: 2nd – 400mh
World U20 Championships
2002 Kingston 1st – 400mh
2004 Grosseto 2nd – 4x400m relay
2006 Bambous 1st – 400mh
2008 Nairobi 1st – 400mh
2010 Addis Abeba 1st – 400mh
2007 Algiers 1st – 400mh
Diamond League Honours
2011 Doha 1st – 400mh
2011 Rome 1st – 400mh
Golden League Honours
2007 Rome 1st – 400mh
Manfred Seidler has been in the media industry in athletics since 1994 having managed the media around a number of SA Track and Field Championships, SA Cross Country Championships and Road Championships. He also was the media account director on the hugely successful Engen Grand Prix Summer Series from 1995 to 1997 before being head hunted by the Television company Octagon CSI. Manfred founded the athletics TV Show Athletics Alive (later to become Engen Gijima) until the sponsor withdrew from the sport in 2003. During that time Manfred had the privilege of traveling the world and meeting and interviewing some of the best athletes in the world while he chased South Africa’s finest around the globe. Manfred resurrected Athletics Alive in 2011 on behalf of SABC and produced the show until 2016. He has covered three Olympic Games (2008/12/16 - was in London for 2012), the Commonwealth Games (2006/10/14/18) and was able to attend three World Championships. Manfred is now an accomplished Media Consultant with Athletics his biggest focus - and still his biggest passion.