Irvette van Zyl poses with runner up Rutendo Nyahora and third-placed Lebogang Phalula after the 2016 SPAR Challenge 10km in Cape Town. Photo: Stephen Granger

By Stephen Granger

In May 2020, three-time Soweto Marathon and SPAR Grand Prix 10km series winner, Irvette Van Zyl, chose to go under the knife to relieve the nagging knee pain she had experienced ever since a scooter accident as a teenager.  The ‘chondroplasty procedure’ was innovative but she was given no more than a 50-50 chance of returning to competitive running at all.

Just over a year later, Van Zyl stands to represent her country at the highest level.

A surgeon’s skill and the determination to get through a gruelling six months of post-surgery rehabilitation (characterised by months of cycling, swimming and running on an anti-gravity treadmill) proved decisive and Van Zyl is currently enjoying a rare space of injury-free running – a vast difference from previous years when she was continually plagued by injuries.

“It has been a lot of years of heartache and tears,” Van Zyl admitted. “Mentally some of the injuries broke me but others made me stronger.”

The scooter accident at 17 was a major blow to the then rising athletics star, Irvette van Blerk. Seventeen years later and married with two children, Irvette van Zyl is looking forward to representing South Africa in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics early next month.

Close teammates and rivals, Zimbabwean Rutendo Nyahora and Irvette van Zyl in the 2016 SPAR Challenge 10km in Cape Town. Photo: Stephen Granger

Whether her years of injury woes could all be blamed on that scooter accident, which ripped open both knees, seriously damaged one calf muscle, scraped the skin off both her thighs and forced two months bed rest, is uncertain but serious injuries have struck Van Zyl on several occasions, shattering dreams before they could be realised.

Selected to run the marathon for South African at the world championships in Russia in 2013, Van Zyl was forced to withdraw due to inflammation of her right knee’s synovial membrane after she had run a lifetime best of 2 hrs 31 min 26 sec at London Marathon.  Then a stress fracture prevented Van Zyl from getting to the start line of the marathon at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

From as early as 2012, Van Zyl had struggled with a lack of power in one leg through persistent numbness. A successful operation in 2019 was able to free an entrapped artery, correcting the malady, but she missed several high-profile races as a result. She embarked on a vigorous cross-training regime in order to rehabilitate as fast as possible.

Irvette van Zyl wins the 2016 Cape Town Onerun 12km. Photo: Stephen Granger

Then in 2020, she decided to finally deal with the knee pain that had continued to plague her since her initial accident. While the successful surgery and subsequent recovery were massive for her career, Van Zyl credits her new coach for what has happened since.

“The key change for me was moving to Nick Bester as a coach. He has really been a massive change in my running career –  he lets me train smarter which enables me to look after my body.

“His positivity and confidence has really helped me believe in myself. If he says you can run a certain time, then you know you can do it. Previously, I always felt broken when I trained for a marathon, but with Nick’s programme I don’t feel that way.  That has made me enjoy my running again.”

With road running in abeyance due to COVID restrictions, the Pretoria athlete made use of 5000m track races around the country in February and March this year to return to racing fitness before embarking on a last-ditch effort to qualify for the Olympic Marathon in a race in Siena, Italy, in April.  Needing to run a two-minute lifetime best time in order to beat the Olympic qualifying mark of 2:29:30, she ran the race of her life to book her ticket to Japan with a stunning 2:28:40.

The green-vests of Irvette van Zyl and Gerda Steyn are distinctive at the start of the Olympic qualifying marathon in Siena. Photo: Francesca Grana

“Siena was very special,” Van Zyl admitted. “I wanted to quit the sport many times over the years due to miserable injuries and the tough mental struggles to get through them.  But each time the love for the sport got me through, no matter how hard it was.  I had really struggled to make a comeback from having knee surgery in May last year and then it happened in Italy. That was a special moment and really emotional, as it had taken me nine years to run a marathon faster than 2:30!” 

Just three weeks after her marathon triumph, Van Zyl ran an excellent 1:12:54 for third place behind top east African athletes at the national half marathon championships in Gqeberha. Then followed a remarkable performance at the Nedbank ‘Breaking Barriers’ 50km race at the same venue three weeks later, where she ran a world-record time of 3:04:23.

A sign that the ‘new and improved’ version of Van Zyl had arrived was her fast recovery from the 50km world record. “I didn’t race the 50km hard,” Van Zyl said. “It is rare that you get to run a race that feels as comfortable as a long Sunday training run. I recovered quite quickly, but Nick gave me a whole week off running just to make sure. Mentally it was a great confidence-booster for my marathon build-up to Tokyo.”

Irvette van Zyl in action at the Oympic qualifying marathon in Siena marathon. Photo: Francesca Grana

Some athletes find their careers on the decline or retire from the sport following the arrival of children.  For Van Zyl, it appears the opposite is true and the 34-year old wife of former Olympian LJ Van Zyl and mother of two sons has enjoyed some of her best results in recent years.

“My kids have put me into a better routine and I find I’m mentally stronger after having kids,” said Van Zyl. “I feel I have to set an example for them that you have to work hard if you want to achieve something in life. (They have also helped) me ‘going with the flow’, to be present and not over-think issues.

A seven-months-pregnant Irvette van Zyl finished 3rd in the 2018 SPAR 10km Challenge. Photo: Stephen Granger

“(This last month) it has been different with the kids being at home due to schools being closed and our decision to keep the kids at home to prevent them contracting and spreading the virus.  So LJ and I have been juggling with who does what (with the kids) so that both of us can get our work done for the day. 

“For now, I am so busy with training and looking after the kids that the excitement of running at the Olympics will only really sink in once I am on the plane on my way to Tokyo!”

7 months pregnant Irvette van Zyl finished 3rd in the 2018 SPAR 10km Challenge in Bellville behind winner Kesa Moletsane (centre) and Glenrose Xaba. Photo: Stephen Granger

In the past, Van Zyl has struggled to maintain her speed and focus in the latter stages of races, but recent history appears to indicate otherwise.  “I will be focused to stay as comfortable as possible for as long as I can so that I can do a strong second half,” she adds. “Gerda and I will support each other as far as possible, but on race day I will be focused on my own race and doing the best I can.”

Van Zyl appreciates the importance of having a positive environment around her leading up to the race and values the support from the South African team and team manager, Hendrick Ramaala, in particular.  “I am grateful and excited that Hendrick is going with us and will be there for us as a team.  He knows the in’s and out’s of marathon running. I know him well and he has always been a great motivator.”

Running at the best of your ability and at the top of your game is all that can be asked of an Olympian.  And after two disappointing Olympic experiences in London and Rio, Van Zyl is looking forward to something very different in Japan.

Irvette and LJ van Zyl. Photo: Stephen Granger

I am in a good space right now,” Van Zyl said. “I’m feeling confident and excited. I have definitely learnt a lot from my previous experiences and mistakes. This time I have a new coach and feel more mature and mentally ready for what lies ahead.” 

Bester agrees. “I’m certain Irvette will do very well in Japan. She’s at the top of her form and running better than ever,” he said. “In fact, I think she will run a South African record unless the conditions are just too difficult with the heat and humidity.”

And more than anything, she knows she will have the backing of her supporters’ club in South Africa. “My husband LJ and my two little boys are my biggest supporters and fan club!”

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