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Van der Westhuyzen basks in golden glow of Tokyo triumph

August 5, 2021

Bond University graduate Jean van der Westhuyzen has claimed a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. PICTURE: Cavan Flynn

He moved to Australia to train with his heroes and today Jean van der Westhuyzen became one himself by winning gold in the K2 1000m kayak.

The Bond University Bachelor of Business graduate claimed gold alongside teammate Tom Green in a time of 3:15:28, beating Germany in a thrilling final at the Tokyo Olympics.

In doing so the South African-born van der Westhuyzen replicated feats of his heroes-cum-training partners; 2008 Beijing gold medallist Ken Wallace and 2012 London gold medallist Murray Stewart.

The Australians got out hard and worked to a half boat length lead, holding on as Germany closed fast in the last 250 metres.

As a boy, van der Westhuyzen would stay up until the early hours of the morning in his hometown of Franschhoek, just outside Cape Town, to watch Wallace, Stewart and other Australians compete.

Stewart was an inspiration.

He, like van der Westhuyzen, moved to Australia from South Africa when he was only 13. 

“I’ve been following the squad for a long time through social media,” van der Westhuyzen said.

“All those role models that I looked up to have now been involved in my career.

“David Smith is coaching me now, I’ve trained with Ken Wallace and now I’m in the same team as Murray Stewart, all three are Olympic gold medallists, it’s awesome to have them involved in my career.

“There’s a sense of expectation to be at a certain level at training, so it is motivating to be around the guys and knowing what they have achieved, you want to achieve the same.

“Murray showed me that it was possible, it was an example that I could do the same.

“It felt like a dream to train with them. I never felt like I could actually do it - that I could come to Australia, study and graduate from Bond University and train with the squad. It is unbelievable.”

Van der Westhuyzen moved to Australia in 2018 for a chance to train with his heroes – and to study at Bond University.

“I never thought I’d be good as Murray, the first time I beat him at training, I was pretty shocked,” van der Westhuyzen said. 

“It was awesome for me, he is still an extremely good athlete, I think it gave me some belief I can achieve the same as he did.”

Van der Westhuyzen began paddling as a 10-year-old and the sport quickly shaped his life.

“Kayaking was a school sport at my junior school but I started taking it more seriously a few years later,” he said.

“I started following a training program in the school holidays and doing training camps near the beach.

“I didn’t play any other sports, I was just focused on kayaking.

“I went to my first international event in Germany when I was 13 and won my two events.

"It wasn’t a huge result in terms of the sport but, for me, it was a big deal. It made me think, maybe I can do this at a higher level.”

Two years later, he realised kayaking could be his future.

“I made my first World Championship team as a 15-year-old,” he said.

“It was a K2 marathon for junior boys. My partner and I won that 21km race. I was the youngest South African to get a World Championship medal at 15.”

Now he’s an Olympic champion.