In 2015 a shy 19-year old from Graaff Reinet, caused a stir when he stopped the clock running 45.42sec over 400 metres at Potchefstroom. He then walked away from the sport, but he’s back – and better than ever.
It was thought in 2015 that Berend Koekemoer was a future champion in the making. Things did not quite work out as he had hoped. He quit athletics in 2018 and went to work on a farm to help his parents.
Still, Koekemoer could not let go of his dreams. He felt he had yet to run that one perfect race. What clinched it for him was when Paul Gorries, the national relay coach, contacted him telling him he should consider making a comeback.
‘I told him that you don’t quit athletics when at 19 you ran 45.42 over 400 metres,’ Gorries explained.
Koekemoer took his words to heart. Towards the end of last year, he joined TuksAthletics. Being 25 he realises there is no time to waste. He has got to make every minute count.
For him, the question is not if he could dip under 45 seconds over 400 metres but when he will do so – Koekemoer’s confidence sprouts from the times he is clocking during training. But he is realistic. Through past experience, he has learned never to take anything for granted. There is a reason why the 400 metres is considered to be one of the toughest races.
“It is fast from the start. I consider the first 50 metres to be crucial. Then the thinking games start. You can never afford to slack down, but you also don’t want to burn off too much energy too early. I prefer being in the second or third position after 200 metres. The last 150 metres is usually the moment of truth. That is when the battle between your brain and muscles start in earnest,” the Tuks athlete explains.
There was a good reason why Berend Koekemoer’s 45.42 heroics caused excitement. He was South Africa’s second fastest over 400 metres in 2015. Only Wayde van Niekerk was faster. Over the last six years, only five local athletes have managed to dip under 45.50s.
Koekemoer had qualified to compete at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing. During the heats he clocked 46.52. In 2014 he just missed out qualifying for the final during the World Junior Championships in the USA. He finished 9th in the semi-finals (46.87).
According to Koekemoer, he had no choice but to quit athletics in 2018.
‘Our family was going through a problematic time. It felt selfish to focus on an athletics career, knowing that I could make a difference. I went to work on a game farm in the Eastern Cape to help. It was tough. I persevered for the sake of my parents.’
Gorries believes the time Koekemoer spent working on the farm will stand him in good stead.
‘Berend now realises what life outside of athletics is about. I don’t doubt that his experience as a farmworker has mentally toughened him, motivated him. That is why I think he will dip under 45 seconds.’
Words: Wilhelm de Swardt. Photo: Reg Caldercott