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Reaching New Heights

A conversation with Zenéy van der Walt

 We get to explore a wealth of interesting topics here at JANonline.com. From food to fashion, art, history and travel, there are few creative areas we haven’t explored. One topic we don’t get to talk about much is that of sport. Luckily for us, our Editor-in-Chief Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen is not the only talented individual in his family, in fact, his 22-year-old cousin Zenéy van der Walt is making headlines of her own after flying the South African flag high at the Commonwealth Games with a phenomenal third place podium finish in the 400m hurdles. If that weren’t impressive enough, Zenéy has also qualified for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games!

We caught up with the fourth year education student to see exactly what goes into a podium-worthy athletic career, what’s next for her training, and if she indulges in any post-race guilty pleasures…

When did you discover the world of athletics and your specific event, the 400m hurdles?

Growing up I had a few different interests like netball and gymnastics and I started athletics around six years old, so I was always busy. I started with the more senior events in high school and in Grade Nine I went far enough to win the 300m hurdles SA event for my age group so that’s when I decided to commit to it and pursue it seriously. The following year I started competing in the 400m hurdles and the rest is history.

Tell us about your recent bronze medal finish at the Commonwealth Games?

I consider that medal my career highlight so far. We really weren’t expecting it! On paper I was supposed to come fifth and my coach told me anything better than fifth place was just going to be a bonus. I decided I was just not going to give up. I think I was about seventh or eighth and I thought, “fifth isn’t good enough for me. The race isn’t over until it’s over, so I won’t stop”. Anything can happen during a race, and anything did happen. I wanted to push myself and see what I could do and I ended up running a huge personal best.

What are you setting your sights on next?

Next year the World Championships are taking place again in Budapest, it’s usually every two years but it’s back to back years now because of Covid disruptions. Then 2024 is the Summer Olympics which will be huge and then the Commonwealth Games are taking place again in 2026. I know it sounds far away but preparation is vital for all of them and planning is extremely important.

What does your training regime look like?

I train six days a week and rest on Sundays, but in the off season I can train twice a day sometimes. It’s tough on the body but that’s the kind of commitment it takes. My coach is Maritza Coetzee, we’ve been training together for eight years now.

Do you have to stick to strict meal plans or diets?

I don’t have a strict diet plan that someone put together for me but I do make sure I eat healthily to support my training. That means no sugar or sweets! Essentially I just need to ensure that I get all my proteins, greens and carbs like potatoes in. It’s all about having a balanced diet.

You travel a lot for competitions, do you have any go-to travel snacks you pack with you?

I actually eat a lot so it can be difficult to travel with what I need, especially if they confiscate my things at the airport! I like to be able to boil an egg or two while travelling because it’s healthy and substantial. Then I like to pack things like a banana or overnight oats, convenient and healthy snacks!

Do you have a go-to post-competition guilty treat?

I can treat myself to a pizza or a burger but then to be honest I get over it and I’d prefer to go back to my regular eating.

What’s it like balancing your training and competing with having a regular student life?

Honestly I don’t have a normal student life, but that was my choice. You have to choose. You can’t have the ‘normal’ student experience if you want to perform in this discipline. But I also don’t think that life is for me, I would honestly rather be at home with my family or friends cooking a good meal.

Do you have any fun hobbies?

I love cooking, I should really try some more of Jan’s recipes… I also enjoy listening to music, my favourites are Afrikaans and country, and just hanging out with friends. I’m quite an adventurous person, I enjoy adrenaline junkie activities like bungee jumping, roller coasters, swimming at the dam, things like that.

What role has your family played in your athletic successes?

My family has been a huge support since day one, they have always been behind me, always support me, and are always proud no matter what happens.

What’s it like having Jan Hendrik as a cousin?

He’s a big inspiration, he has achieved so much and has created so many things you wouldn’t think are possible. A lot of people look up to him and it’s so amazing to see what he’s done with his talents.

What advice would you give Grade Nine Zenéy if you could go back in time?

I don’t necessarily have advice but I would tell myself that I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved and the hard work I’ve put in, especially with all the sacrifices it takes. I’d say, “don’t worry about the future, your hard work is going to pay off and you are going to achieve the things you dream of.”

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