Training sessions at Varsity Lakes have paid off for Bond alumnus Jean van der Westhuyzen, who is off to the Tokyo Olympics. PICTURE: Cavan Flynn
He was born and raised in South Africa but Jean van der Westhuyzen will pull on a different green and gold uniform when he represents Australia at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
The Bond University Bachelor of Business alumnus was one of the last Australian athletes to book his ticket to the Games in 2020 before coronavirus put the world on hold.
“I was super lucky I was one of the last athletes to qualify for the Olympics before COVID started getting really crazy,” van der Westhuyzen said.
“The Gold Coast is in a pretty fortunate position compared to other parts of the world because we can still get out and train and move forward with our normal activities.
“I embraced the postponement as a great opportunity. We got another year of preparation, another year to sharpen our skills and to improve.
"Hopefully myself and partner Tom Green will be better than we were last year.”
The postponement of the Olympics helped the paddler graduate well ahead of schedule.
“My graduation would have looked quite different had the Olympics gone ahead as planned,” van der Westhuyzen said.
“I would have been still studying and had two more semesters to go. I guess there have been some positives to come out of corona.
“I couldn’t have picked a better university as far as balancing my academic interests with my sporting commitments. It has been tough at times but it has definitely built a better character and helped my management skills.
“The support from Bond has been awesome and it has taken my sport to the next level.”
Van der Westhuyzen moved to Australia in 2018 to train alongside his childhood heroes, 2008 Beijing gold medallist Ken Wallace and 2012 London gold medallist Murray Stewart.
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.
Now they not only train together at Varsity Lakes, they are in the same Australian team set for the Tokyo Olympics.
“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 medalists and it’s awesome to have them involved in my career.”
Stewart was an inspiration when van der Westhuyzen was young; now he is a driving force towards the Olympics.
“I never thought I’d be as good as Murray so 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, and I think it has given me some belief I can achieve the same as he did.
“He’s a bit older now than he was when he was Olympic champion, but he is still a phenomenal athlete.
“Hopefully I can pull some of the same results he has achieved in his career.”
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.”
Five years later, he hopes to medal at his first Olympic Games, not in the green and gold of South Africa, but of Australia.
“It’s hard to put into words how Australia has helped me along the way, the country has been unbelievable to me,” he said.
“I’m super proud to be representing Australia at the Olympics and I’ll definitely hold our flag high.”
Jean van der Westhuyzen (Class of 2018)
Canoe Sprint: K1 and K2 1000m
K1 Heats: Monday, August 2, Sea Forest Waterway
K1 Final: Tuesday, August 3
K2 Heats: Wednesday, August 4
K2 Final: Thursday, August 5