Sunette Viljoen aims for fifth Olympics: "No matter what, I will get back up"
Cricketer turned South African javelin thrower shares her high hopes for Tokyo 2020 after recovering from a back injury.
Age has never been a barrier for Sunette Viljoen.
At only 17 years, she became the youngest South African woman to play international cricket.
In 2021 she hopes to celebrate her 38th birthday as a javelin Olympic champion.
And the Rio 2016 silver medallist is not planning a Tokyo 2020 swansong at her fifth Olympics.
“I hate it when someone speaks to me and says you are probably now focused on ending your career. I am nowhere near ending it,” she said in an exclusive interview with the Olympic Channel.
After success at Rio, the Olympic silver medallist has fought hard to get back on the field, after battling a lower back injury for two years.
The former fast bowler now has an extra year to prepare to realise her dream to be an ‘Olympic champion.’
“No matter what and no matter how long it takes, I will get back up.”
Eyes on javelin not age
If there is one thing that the South African really ‘hates’ it’s the focus on her non-sporting aspect, especially her age.
After more than a decade and a half in the sport, she has become one of the faces of women’s javelin due to her competitiveness and her natural throwing skills.
The most successful African female javelin thrower, however, finds herself rebuffing any suggestions that she might be at the tail end of her career.
“I always get mentioned in newspapers, I am the 35-year-old javelin thrower or whatever, the veteran. I don’t know why my age has to be mentioned. I don’t know why age has to be mentioned every time, if you are good you are good, healthy, strong, it doesn’t matter how old or how young you are. You can do it until you are 100,” the five-time African champion told the Olympic Channel.
“I don’t like it all. It irritates me. I hate it when someone speaks to me and says you are probably now focused on ending your career. I’m nowhere near ending it. I will decide when I am finished.”
For Viljoen silencing the doubters was bigger than questions about being a seasoned thrower.
She is recognised as one of the most consistent throwers in the world. From her first international medal, a bronze at the 2003 All-Africa Games in Nigeria, the double Commonwealth gold medallist has gone on to win several global and continental titles.
“I get up with fire and passion for javelin. I want to still achieve more things and be great at what I do. I never thought my career would be so long. There is nothing so nice for me to see than the javelin fly through the air,” she said of the sport that she first tried out as a 14-year-old.
From fast bowling to javelin throws
Interestingly athletics was not her first sport. She was keener on playing one of the most popular sports in the rainbow nation.
“My brother and I played a lot of cricket and I always had a fast arm throwing balls and rocks on the farm,” she said.
“Then I was picked to play for South Africa, and I was the youngest player ever at 16, and that same year we went to the World Cup in Christchurch.”
She played 27 ODIs and a Test match against India.
As remarkable as the teen’s numbers were on the crease, with her best bowling figures of 3 for 27 at the 2000 World Cup, she opted to transfer her bowling approach for the javelin run-up.
“I got an athletics bursary. My coach saw me throwing at a high school meet, and he said, ‘this girl has a lot of natural talent I think I can do something with her’,” recalled the right-handed all-rounder.
“I always had a really fast arm. When I went to University, I had to leave cricket which has always been one of my first loves, but I think I am more of an individual sports player. When you are in a team environment you always can hide away behind people”
“I like to get out what I put in. All the heartaches, the disappointments, the failures, the victories you have on yourself. That’s what I enjoy with the javelin, stand there and throw to the best of my abilities.”
It is this approach that has made her one of the greatest in the second-oldest women’s Olympic throwing event, that was included in the Olympic program in 1932, four years after the discus.
She and Rio 2016 silver medallist Julius Yego are the only Africans ever to have won javelin medals at the Olympics.
The road to the Olympic medal
Viljoen announced herself to the athletics world with a gold medal at 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
Four years later she cemented her position in a discipline that has historically been dominated by American and European athletes, defending her Commonwealth title, and adding a silver at the 2011 Worlds.
But it’s the Olympics chapter of her illustrious career that stretches back to the 2003 Worlds, that excites her.
“The biggest heartache of my athletics career was London 2012 when I finished fourth in the final. Going into the London Olympics as World number one, then finishing fourth was a shock for me.
"I was sad for almost two weeks,"said the African record-holder from her personal best throw of 69.35m in 2012.
“But I wanted to do something for myself to go back to the Olympics and fight for a medal and show that I was capable of that. Be an Olympic medallist. It’s something that I dreamt of for so long. To get the silver in a competition that was so tight. Five or six of us threw 64m, and we were just separated by centimetres."
Talking about her peak also reminds her of an injury setback just after Rio 2016.
"It was the first major injury that I had in 16-17 years. I had had ankle, shoulder, knee [discomfort] but I struggled with my back. I think it’s the force and the training, but I am very blessed to be conditioned very well," she explained.
The 36-year-old picked up her fourth Commonwealth medal at Gold Coast in 2018 although she struggled at the 2019 World Championships in Doha.
“I have had to fight so hard to be back on the javelin runway and it’s something I’ll never take for granted. I can be the five-time Africa champion, another Olympic medallist but I want to achieve more and as long as I stay injury-free, I can do that.”
“I battled injuries, but as I know myself, I always have to believe to deliver when it matters most. It doesn’t matter how many times I compete whether it’s in Tokyo or Oregon I always have the belief I can do it,” said the double World medallist of her potential at her best.
2019 was also the year she launched herself as an athlete-cum-coach.
The Johannesburg-based athlete has been training without a coach since early 2019 after parting ways with compatriot Terseus Liebenberg, whom she had worked with for 16 years.
But she remains ambitious, feels fitter and sharper.
“I wake up every morning full of passion to go on and I think the most important thing is that I am still enjoying it, throwing the javelin and training. I want to be stronger, faster, more explosive and I think that is the fire that as an athlete you will know one day when that’s gone. I have too much fire still to give up,’ she offered.
The uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic notwithstanding, she is concentrated on her fifth Olympics and has set high goals.
“Every time I look at that Olympic medal in the drawer and see the colour, I want to win gold in Tokyo. I am at the right stage, physically, mentally. My dream is to be the Olympic champion. I know I can do it, I know what I am capable of, the dreams that I have in my heart are very realistic. I want to be the Olympic champion.”-Sunette Viljoen.
Her secret to her longevity at the highest level is her passion, and she is convinced it will keep her going.
“I have no secret or something I do, it’s just that I have this inner ambition, inner strength in me to do well, to keep the vision to do well and keep on pursuing my dreams.
“I don’t want to turn back one day and say If I had fought one more year or two more years…I want to finish knowing I gave 500% for what I did,” Viljoen added.
In my career I have so many more defeats and disappointments than victories. But what they have done is kept me humble and grounded and it has taught me how to fight for everything I want.”
Sunette Viljoen has found renewed vigour for her chase at the 2020 Olympics.
This interview took place in 2019 but has been updated in light of coronavirus.