'That bit of disappointment made me want it that much more' - Lythe Pillay after winning gold
After finishing in the dreaded fourth place during the 2021 World Athletics U20 Championships in Nairobi, Lythe Pillay began to question whether athletics was really for him. Although he loved the sport and the surge of adrenalin that pumps through his body whenever he sprints round one lap of the track, the weight of expectation and the disappointment of failing to love up to those expectations left the teenager questioning if it really was for him.
"As much as it's been difficult along the way, I've taken a lot of positives out of it. Last year coming fourth was quite a devastating blow especially because going in there I had high expectations for myself. Everyone else all had these high expectations especially coming off Tokyo, the World Relays and the European circuit. And I'd say that bit of disappointment made me want it that much more," he told #TheTopRunner at the OR Tmabo International Airport after returning from the 2022 World Athletics U20 Championships in Cali having made amends for his fourth place a year earlier by winning the gold medal this time around.
But what is remarkable is just how he did it. Because after he took part in the Tokyo Olympics, represented South Africa at the World Athletics World Relays in the 4x400m and ran on the super competitive European track and field circuit, it was taken as a given that he would be crowned champion at the U20 Championships in Kenya. When he faded into fourth, rather than quitting the sport, the King Edwards School Deputy Headboy began to visualize what it would be like to stand on top of the podium in Colombia.
"My bib was lane number 4. So when I went back home I took that bib and stuck it on my wall so that every morning when I wake up it would be the first thing that I see, just to remind me that I wanna do better this year. I wanna get that gold this year. And it's been like that. It's something I manifested. It's something I've been gunning for since I walked into the airport exactly a year ago," he said with a maturity beyond his years.
But in order to make that vision a reality, there would be more obstacles for the 19-year-old to overcome. Transitioning from high school to his first year at the University of Johannesburg, injury and getting Covid-19 tested Pillay's desire to get that gold medal. But with the support of his family, particularly his mother Beverly and his coach Lindi du Plessis' implementation of a new racing strategy - the goal was ultimately achieved.
"Coach nailed the plan quite well given all those curveballs. Trying to get ready at the right time. I feel like it was a really fine balance and I feel like coach did really well on that. Our focus from last year was to try and work on the finish. In order to do that we had to work on certain aspects in training, but also adjust my race tactics. I stuck to my own race. I didn't try and chase others down. I kept it controlled and I feel like that's what made the biggest difference compared to last year," he smiled.
And for his faith in his coach and sticking to his race place, the Adidas sponsored athlete was rewarded with not only the gold medal, but also a new lifetime best of 45.28. It's a performance that has underlined his status as the heir apparent to Wayde van Niekerk's throne and showed the world that his considerable physical gifts are accompanied by a deep inner strength that will likely carry him to the very pinnacle of the sport.
But rather than take the credit, Pillay says he is only still running because of the support he received from his loved ones during the tough times over the last 12 months.
"I'd say that's the difference between me staying in the sport and leaving the sport. Because I mean feeling the rejection of coming fourth last year did hit home. Throughout the year there was this hype about me going to Tokyo and the World Relays and then the moment I came fourth, everyone forgot about me. But I'm thankful for that experience because now I know that I should only listen to the voices of people that have been there from the start - people that are there whether I win or lose."