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Text Fanie Heyn
CAPE TOWN “It was a moment of unbridled joy, followed by deep despair.”
Stephan Louw had – almost out of character – promised a team-mate that he would smash the Namibian long-jump record on that sunny day in 1999 in Windhoek. He was true to his word. But then, to his dismay, he realised that Quinton-Steel Botes, the head official, was absent, and that the record could not be confirmed.
Would this be Paradise Lost for the 24-year old Stephan? Not at all!
“I felt very confident, and was not surprised when I repeated the jump of 8.17 metres and it became the official national record,” he says.
‘Do it again’ has been the mantra of Stephan’s life.
His brilliance – first as an award-winning double Namibian champion and Olympian, and currently as inspirational mentor behind a bubbling new generation of aspiring South African Olympians – has spanned three decades of excellence.
From Stampriet to Windhoek
Stampriet – synonymous with tasty biltong and the production of vegetables and fruit such as tomatoes, green beans, sweet lemons and watermelons – is the birthplace of the Namibian Wünderkind Stephan Louw.
His father, Fanie, introduced Stephan to badminton, rugby and athletics, and Stephan became a junior badminton star. As a rugby player, he excelled as wing, where play revolved around giving him the ball in space. His pace would carry him to the try-line with nobody in sight.
As a young star athlete, he had so much talent that he was regarded as a child prodigy, and a professional sporting career beckoned. He acknowledges, however, that due to a lack of technique, especially in the long jump, and a shortage of mentoring, he became stuck in reverse gear for a while. The appointment of Willi Gerneman as Namibian head coach through a development initiative from Germany proved to be a turning point for the young Stephan.
“He assisted me with my basic conditioning and technical training, and in 1998 I finished ninth at the Commonwealth Games. I finally broke the 8-metre mark with a Namibian record of 8.17 metres in 1999 in Windhoek,” says Stephan.
Milestones… and a setback
Two of Stephan’s greatest personal milestones occurred at the turn of the century, when he became national champion in the 100 metres with a time of 10.34 before representing Namibia in the long jump at the Sydney Olympics.
As a dual national champion, much was expected of Stephan Louw in Sydney. “I went into the Games without a coach, but my lack of technical prowess and 110 per cent eagerness resulted in three no jumps in the qualifying rounds.”
That meant automatic disqualification, a bitter disappointment for Stephan. Nevertheless, in spite of this setback, he was honoured as Namibian Sportsman of the Year in 2001.
Ecstasy in Germiston, agony in Athens
Stephan had the opportunity to redeem himself after the disappointment in Sydney. And an athletics track meeting in Germiston in January 2008 proved to a perfect launching pad for the summer Olympics in Athens later that year.
His Namibian record of 8.17 was firmly in his sights in Germiston. “It was one of those days when you warm up and just know that something magical is going to happen.
That magical thing did happen, as he replaced 8.17 with a Namibian record of 8.24, which strengthened his self-belief before his trip to Athens.
At the Olympics Stephan had a shaky start, missing his mark twice. He agonised over his third jump. “I was controlled in the jump and executed it well, achieving a distance of 7.93 metres. At this stage I was tenth, and the top twelve jumpers qualify. I was pretty sure I would meet the criteria, as there were only four more jumpers to come. It was with utter disbelief that I learnt in the media area that I had been moved to number thirteen, with the twelfth-ranked athlete recording a distance of 1 centimetre better. Even my coach, Charley Strohmenger, was unaware of this and greeted me with enthusiasm on the warm-up track, only to learn that I hadn’t made it,” he says. “But however bitter-sweet, thirteenth at the Games was an achievement I could not discount.”
There was no magic bullet for Stephan, no easy recipe that inspired success. His was a long and winding road. “Quinton-Steel Botes was there to provide the opportunities and support network. He always believed in me. Gernman shaped me technically. There were many European trainers who alerted me on how to train and how to go the proverbial extra mile to achieve.”
As a coach, Stephan is overseeing the career of at least twelve athletes.
A South African record tumbles
In February 2012 one of Stephan’s students, Charlene Potgieter, became a South African long-jump record holder.
It was a proud moment for the non-demonstrative Stephan, as the previous record had been well entrenched for twenty years. Charlene increased the distance by an incredible 15 centimetres!
“Her technique has adapted over time, but I didn’t change much. I did a tremendous amount of conditioning. She is tall and lean and will therefore need considerable conditioning to keep her sufficiently stable to generate, conserve and ultimately transfer her energy into a great jump,” says Stephan.
An impressive list of achievers
Stephan has added to his reputation by also inspiring other talented athletes. Chereze Jones recorded the second-best time in South Africa in 2012 in the women’s 100 metres in a time of 11.58 seconds.
Charles le Roux was the silver medallist at the national championships with a triple-jump distance of 16.63 metres.
Monja Goosen recorded the second-best long-jump distance in South Africa in the early part of 2012, achieving 6.44 metres.
Emotional intelligence and knowing how to get the best out of your athletes are critical factors when managing potential Olympians, explains Stephan. “Many athletes are afflicted with what is popularly known as ‘white-line fever’. A personality change occurs when they step onto the track or field and into the competitive zone.”
Stephan is calmness personified in the eye of the hurricane, and it gives his athletes a sense of security. “Athletes will always be great emotional actors. So you must listen to them, stay calm, be rational and remain in control,” he asserts. “Most top-level athletes boast fairly equal talents. But in my experience, what makes a great coach is a long-term professional relationship and knowing what makes your athlete tick.
“You must learn to think like your athlete, to anticipate and recognise things before they happen. Athletes need stability through the best and worst of times, and the coach will be the one they turn to. When my athletes achieve a personal best performance, my heart leaps with joy. But they usually see only a smile and a nod of recognition.”
Fun and medals in Finland
What was the funniest moment in his career as athlete and coach?
Stephan remembers vividly that he was asked in 1999 to award medals to junior long jumpers at a track-and-field meeting in Finland. Afrikaans is his native tongue, and he was not too eloquent in English. He searched for the right words to say to the medal winners on the podium, and then, instead of using the word ‘congratulations’, he botched it and came up with “Good luck!” instead.
“All I could do afterwards was chuckle. Thank God most of the Finnish people don’t understand that much English, so they just applauded.”
Back to the future
The Namibian coach believes that successfully developing the career of his twelve athletes will hinge on the hard work done in the off-season, and on their commitment to conditioning.
“My coaching view has always been that today’s success is built on last year’s growth. If you suffer an injury, you must do maintenance work before you can make progress.”
He expresses a vote of confidence in Charlene Potgieter, saying about her future prospects: “Breaking the South African record was just a formality, as she jumped much further in training sessions prior to the record. She’ll break the record again.”
This article appeared in the July’12 edition of FLAMINGO Magazine.