Gift Leotlela can honestly claim to be South African athletics forgotten sprinter, but as it said you can’t ‘slow’ a quality sprinter down forever.
During the Gauteng North Championships at Tuks, he clocked a time of 10.31sec in the 100m. It was his best in three years. Since April 2017 he hardly raced. First, it was due to a lower back fracture. Then his hamstrings started to act up.
To Leotlela’s credit, he never considered quitting as an option even during the “darkest of days”. It was a dream of running that perfect race that kept him going.
In 2016 the Tuks sprinter was the ‘talk of the track’. At the World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland he won a silver medal in the 200m (20.59). He was fourth in the 100m (10.28). Best was that he had qualified in the 200m to compete at the Rio Olympics. It meant being only 18 years and two months old he was the youngest track and field athlete to represent South Africa at the Games.
Leotlela continued to get faster. In 2017 he set a South African junior record running 10.12 in the 100m. At the time only 10 South African senior sprinters had run faster times. Another highlight was beating the legendary Wayde van Niekerk over 100 metres in Bloemfontein.
Then disaster struck. The Tuks sprinter got injured during the South African Championships in Potchefstroom. It led to him not racing for nearly two years.
His first dedicated attempt at a comeback only happened last year in Europe. From a statistical perspective, his first race could be considered as catastrophic. He ran a time of 11.40 in the 100m.
Leotlela was, however far from despondent. All that mattered to him was to be in the starters blocks hearing the starter saying: ‘on your marks … get set …’
‘I did not realise how I missed hearing those words. My adrenaline started pumping. Unfortunately, I was really rusty. It led to me being slow out of the blocks, and not really getting any faster. Not that it mattered. I was racing in front of spectators. It was fantastic.’
Leotlela is realistic about running 10.31 during the provincial championships.’
‘My start was terrible … really terrible. I will need to work on it. My top-end speed was sort of OK.’
According to the Tuks sprinter, his biggest challenge this season was to learn to trust his body again.
‘When you have been injured for such a long time, you start to doubt whether your body will hold up under pressure. I know now that it can. I would have loved to compete in a few more races, but I understand why all sport had to come to an abrupt halt.
‘There will still be plenty of time to race. Now at least I got more time to work on getting faster and to finish my studies,’ said the final year information science student.
Leotlela was confident of dipping under 10.10 if the season had continued. He also had planned to race the 200m.
Photo: Reg Caldercott