How Olympic canoe sprint kings Tom Green and Jean van der Westhuyzen triumphed over trauma and loss

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Tom Green and Jean van der Westhuyzen became heroes overnight in Australia when they won a shock gold medal in the Olympic K2 1000m canoe sprint. Both 22 years old, they rose to the top of their sport early in their respective careers. However, the two had to overcome adversity on their way to the top.

Their struggles were of a very contrasting nature. Van der Westhuyzen grew up in a dark but idyllic region of the Cape vineyards of South Africa. Life was good, but his chances of emerging as an Olympic gold medalist in that region were almost nil. If he hadn’t made the courageous decision to migrate to Australia in 2018 and passed a citizenship test the following year, it would have been nearly impossible.

Green, born in Queensland, is an Australian to the bone, but by no means had a clear path to the top. Raised in a single-parent family after his mother left his father out of concern for the safety of him and his two siblings, Green had to constantly struggle to raise funds to compete.

“It was a pretty bad situation. My mom left my dad because it was an abusive relationship – like, I guess, unfortunately that’s pretty normal. She left for our protection and safety. When she realized that my siblings were getting pretty affected by it, she said, ‘No, that’s it – I’m going to protect you guys,’ “Green told ESPN.

“That’s what she did. She protected us and raised us herself. She’s a great woman and a powerful woman and I can’t thank her enough, honestly. She really protected me a lot. and protected me from a lot of things that come from this.

“There are things that I will obviously never forget and things that I will take with me for the rest of my life because of this. I think it just helped me build and build the relationship that I have with my family – my brother, my sister and my mother. “

Green’s mother worked for the NSW Police Force, but had to resign after diving in front of a bus to save a woman, suffering from a back injury in the process.

She now works for the Public Guard, helping children in foster care. Her experience in this work, combined with Green’s own experience in a household with one breadwinner, inspired the mother and son to collaborate on the launch of Gifted, a charity that aims to improve access to health. ‘education in foster homes, in particular by providing access to tablets, iPads and laptops.

The impact this had on his sprint partner, van der Westhuyzen, is evident, as the South African-born star’s first association with his adopted country Australia is what he calls it. of “camaraderie”.

“Just after [high school at] Michaelhouse [in KwaZulu-Natal], I moved to the Gold Coast, located in Queensland. I joined the elite sports program at Bond University. About a year later, after I made my first national team, I got a scholarship from the Queensland Academy of Sport. It all really started from there, ”recalls van der Westhuyzen. In 2020, his parents and two younger brothers followed him.

“I wanted to move for a better life. I wanted to move for education, as well as to train with some of the best athletes in the world. I think [my family] were still going to come, but just at a later stage.

“I think Australians are such a proud nation. They love their sport and they support their people and they support each other a lot. I love the camaraderie and support that Australians give each other. When a man is down we get let’s help each other. I think that also showed in the Australian Olympic team. We really came together and supported each other regardless of the outcome. “

Van der Westhuyzen met Green in a kayak shed at college and the couple bonded. They rejoiced together after van der Westhuyzen passed his citizenship test and Green witnessed how Australia has developed thanks to his sprint partner.

“It’s really cool to see him love the country so purely. He loves Australia from the bottom of his heart. Obviously it was in South Africa that he grew up and he also had so many great accomplishments and memories of there – and the things he experienced – also taught me that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise, ”said Green.

“Australia has certainly, from my perspective, had a huge impact on his life – and a positive impact at that. He’s like a patriot at heart – he’s bleeding red and blue. It was so awesome. to share that with him, because he was looking at the flag and he was crying and he was singing the hymn. It was such a proud moment.

“Obviously for the last two or three years Australia has tried to do everything they can for him and tried to make it like home [as possible]. I guess the biggest thing about it is how open it is and how simple it can be. “

Not all have had the same experience as van der Westhuyzen – New Zealand-born rugby union legend Quade Cooper was sadly denied the chance to compete in the 2016 Olympics due to his inability to acquire Australian nationality. However, there is no doubt that Australia and van der Westhuyzen have served themselves well.

Had he stayed in South Africa, where he had previously become the first canoeist from his country to win a medal at the World Junior Canoe Marathon Championships in 2016, he certainly wouldn’t have been able to win gold in Tokyo. .

Fortunately, he had an example to follow in Murray Stewart, a Durban-born canoe sprinter who was a hero to him and later became a teammate. David Smith and Ken Wallace, both former Olympic gold medalists, served as mentors for Green and van der Westhuyzen – Smith and Jimmy Owens being their official coaches.

“As a youngster I absolutely loved the older guys like Kenny, Murray and the guys who won K4 [gold] in London. One of them is David Smith, who is currently my coach. It was super special to watch my idols and now to be coached by one of them, “said van der Westhuyzen.

“It’s pretty surreal to me. I’ve been watching older guys since I was a very, very young boy. I spent hours at the computer trying to watch their races. It’s great to be able to compete with these. guys.

“Kenny Wallace – I have a great relationship with him. I have a great relationship with Murray – he’s my teammate. They are both great guys. Obviously with my coaches I have probably the best connections. closest – David Smith and Jimmy Owens. They have guided and supported me so much along the way. They are like a father, brother and friend all at the same time. “

Van der Westhuyzen and Green beat another of their heroes, German Max Hoff, for the gold, but he was graceful in the loss and even shared advice.

With the scale of their accomplishments yet to sink completely, van der Westhuyzen and Green will soon return to normal life.

Van der Westhuyzen works as an analyst for fund management firm Skybound Fidelis, while Green is a lifeguard. Their jobs could hardly be more different, but they both received support while pursuing their Olympic dreams.

“They allowed me to have that balance between work and sport. They allowed me to train to about 100% of my potential in the sense that I could work from home which played a role. huge, ”said van der Westhuyzen. by Skybound Fidelis.

Meanwhile, when asked if he was going to go back to work as a lifeguard, a beaming green said: “Probably yes. The Gold Coast City Council has helped me a lot – especially the lifeguard services. tried to be as flexible as they could with me and they certainly helped me have a life outside of sport as well as a life inside.

“I couldn’t imagine a better job than being able to be at the beach for more than six hours a day, trying to keep people safe.”

The K2 1000m will no longer be at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, the 500m taking its place. Green and van der Westhuyzen will have to adapt to new challenges – a task that both relish.

For now, there is at least a little time to pause and reflect on the unlikely journeys that have each faced their own challenges and possibly crossed paths, as well as the nearly impossible final leap to the top step. of the Tokyo Olympics podium. .

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