Security officers in Tokyo, Japan, last week. Picture: REUTERS/ISSEI KATO
Security officers in Tokyo, Japan, last week. Picture: REUTERS/ISSEI KATO

Louzanne Coetzee, the Rose of Bloemfontein, was “overwhelmed” at getting the Paralympic medal she had hoped for five years ago, when she took silver in the 1,500m at the Tokyo Games on Monday. 

“I can’t believe it,” said Coetzee, who was born blind. “I have been competing for eight years and this is my first medal. I’m just overwhelmed. I couldn’t have asked for a better race, a better guide, better preparation, I’m just very thankful for how everything went down.” 

There was a shock for the SA team when wheelchair tennis star Kgothatso Montjane, the sixth seed in the singles, went out in straight sets (6-2 6-3) to Ziying Wang of China. Montjane, who had made the finals of Wimbledon earlier this year, was expected to be a strong contender for a medal for the SA team. 

Coetzee and her guide, Estean Badenhorst, were second, 3½sec behind world champion Monica Rodriguez Saavedra of Mexico, who broke the world record with a blistering time of 4:37.40sec. Coetzee looked to have been saving a little in the tank for the final, run on yet another hot, muggy morning at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium.

The 28-year-old went 9sec faster than her heat, running a personal best of 4:40.96sec. Coetzee’s tears told of the disappointment on her last Paralympics, when she was disqualified in the 1,500m when her guide, Khothatso Mokone, was deemed to have given her illegal assistance when he passed in front of her while overtaking another athlete.

“Khothatso turned his shoulder towards me when he was speaking to me and from the video on the referees’ side, it looked like he was pulling me,” Coetzee recalled. “Nobody wanted to appeal and help me appeal. If I had gone and appealed confidently, we could’ve won the appeal. So I’ve learnt that if you believe in something, go for it. I won’t let that happen to me ever again.

“It wasn’t a great place to learn that at, but I’m glad I gained that experience. I think if I didn’t run that race and get disqualified, I wouldn’t have gained the experience I got.” 

She and Badenhorst went to the front from the off on Monday, which was part of the plan, said her guide. “To be a front-runner. We had trained on time trials against the clock, not on actual races as we haven’t had much opportunity to race a lot. Everything was about the pace. We knew we could do at least a 4:42 and we went out to run a 4:42.

“The Mexican had come past and we knew she could keep that pace up, so we were comfortable to stick behind her.” 

There was some barging and leveraging for position with 800m to go, and Coetzee said she had been “a little scared”.

“I knew I could trust Estean, but there was a lot of action going on and switching of places, which had made it a tougher race to run than had been the case in the heats. This was a bit scary, but Estean had warned me before that it might get like that and I trusted him, so it all turned out fine.” 

They went hard from the bell for the last lap and could not be caught. Cue tears, joy and a silver medal.

“There wasn’t much left in the tank at the end,” said Coetzee. “I’m the kind of runner who, if I could keep up with the gold medallist I would have. This is my limit, for now.”

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