At the Youth Commonwealth Games this year, 16-year-old TuksSport athlete Gift Leotlela won the 100 m sprint in a time of 10.20 seconds, becoming the second fastest sprinter in history at youth level and breaking the South African record for his age group.
Hennie Kriel, Leotlela’s coach, has experienced a year of athletic coaching success with the recent performance of Henricho Bruintjies who became the second South African to dip below the ten second barrier.
Perdeby sat down with the record breaking TuksSport High School athlete, Leotlela, and his coach to find out more about the sprinter himself and what we can expect from him in the future.
How much has your decision to come to TuksSport High benefited your career as an up and coming sprinter?
Gift: Coming here has given me so many opportunities [that have] changed me into a better athlete and I really have to give credit to my coach.
How did you feel about your recent record breaking sprint at the Youth Commonwealth Games?
Gift: I wasn’t expecting to run such a fast time, but I knew I had the ability. Before we went there my coach told me that I can break the South African record, and that motivated me.
Hennie: When Gift arrived here he was already an accomplished athlete who had achieved at [a] national level. He showed great potential and kept on progressing, but nonetheless I was still surprised when he ran a time of 10.20 s.
You are a mere 0.04 s away from Olympic qualification. What do you think your chances are of representing SA in Rio next year?
Gift: I do stand a chance of qualifying and getting that time if I stay healthy and keep training hard.
Hennie: It is important to remember that only three athletes are allowed to represent SA at the Rio Olympics. I would never pressure my athletes. It would be beneficial to Gift if he can become a member of the relay team. Gaining such experience would be invaluable at his age.
When do you hope to start competing professionally at senior level?
Gift: I hope to start competing as soon as I am not grouped as a junior athlete anymore, so around the age of 20.
Hennie: Becoming a professional athlete is different to other sports, because athletics does not involve being contracted, like with rugby. Gift can become a professional athlete as soon as his times are good enough.
The future of SA sprinting looks bright with Anaso Jobodwana and Akani Simbine impressing on the international stage. What has inspired you to take up a career in sprinting?
Gift: They are my inspiration and an inspiration to all [South African athletes]. They did really well this year and make me believe that I can achieve what they have achieved.
Now that Gift has placed his athletic potential in the spotlight, where to from here?
Hennie: He is the number two all-time fastest sprinter in his age group. Not even Usain Bolt ran this time at the same age, but it is very important for him [Gift] to stay hungry and motivated. Very few youth athletes turn into successful athletes at senior level. The challenge is to keep him healthy and keep on progressing.
What will be the focus of your training programme next year?
Hennie: Many people ask me what makes Gift so special, and I believe he is one of very few athletes in the world that has the natural ability to execute the specific technique you need to run such times. He has improved his start a lot this year, and we are going to keep on working hard on it [the technique]. I am not going to experiment on Gift, what we have done has worked and we will carry on with that.
As a coach, you have seen great success with Bruintjies this year and have now had similar success with Gift. From a coach’s perspective, what have these athletic achievements meant to you?
Hennie: It is for moments like these that I coach. Coaching can bring many disappointments, but in times like these I celebrate victory. In Gift’s case I wasn’t at the Games when he ran the time, and when I received a text with his time I was pleasantly surprised and shocked.