DM168

ATHLETICS

SA sprinter Viwe Jingqi may have to unlock her potential by slowing down

Viwe Jingqi, the country’s latest generational sprinting talent in the 100m and 200m. (Photo: Reg Caldecott)

She might be the fastest woman in SA, but teenager Viwe Jingqi’s rise to the top will take some time.

If Viwe Jingqi – the country’s latest generational sprinting talent in the 100m and 200m – comes across as a little older than her teenage years, it is because she’s had to harden up early for a 17-year-old.

Not only was Viwe plucked from relative obscurity in rural Ngcobo (in the Eastern Cape) and entered into the ultracompetitive world of TuksSport High School at just 14, she is also battling to heal from a family tragedy of just over a year ago.

Viwe’s elder brother, Vukile, whom she describes as having been her confidant, was returning on 3 January 2021 to Cape Town after spending the summer holidays at home when the car in which he was travelling was involved in a crash, killing him instantly.

Vukile was 30 at the time of his death, but he had a very close relationship with his sister – the youngest of five children – and treated her like his “first-born” because of the 14-year gap between them.

“He was the sibling I could talk to the most,” she remembers. “He told me I could be open about anything and he was very smart, so I could talk to him about anything and he could advise me about what to do.

“To be honest, I haven’t healed yet, but because he was one of those people who felt you don’t always have to show your pain, I try not to. He always used to say ‘let pain be the reason you become even stronger’.”

With her brother’s readily available advice no longer a phone call away, Viwe has resorted to rereading the texts between them: “When I feel like I need him, I just read our messages because he used to text me and tell me ‘you don’t have to cry all the time’.

“So thinking about him, and the good things we used to do together, is the only thing that has kept me going and helped me not to cry a lot about it. Last year was very hard but I told myself that things like this happen for a reason, and I use this pain as a way of becoming even stronger.

“After he passed away, a lot changed in my life: the way I see things and the way I am around people.

“I was very bubbly but now I’ve become very quiet and I don’t really speak to anyone, but as time goes by I see that I need to celebrate his life and do the things he always wanted me to do.” He wanted her to run faster, the main reason behind those motivational text messages. 

Viwe Jingqi was plucked from relative obscurity in rural Ngcobo (in the Eastern Cape) and entered into the ultracompetitive world of TuksSport High School at just 14. (Photo: Reg Caldecott)

Breaking barriers

Although Viwe’s arrival on a full TuksSport High School Athletics Foundation Trust scholarship was a game changer for a girl from the tiny village of Beyele, it came with its challenges, such as homesickness in a city such as Pretoria and envy from her peers.

“When I got here a lot of people didn’t like the fact that I was from the Eastern Cape and was starting to be faster than them, so I suddenly had a lot of people who didn’t like me.

“Where I come from there is no such thing, and even if people don’t like you they don’t show you, so it was a lot of adjustment.”

But adjust she did, if her performances at the SA Junior and Youth Athletics Championships from 31 March to 2 April in Potchefstroom are anything to go by.

Viwe captured the country’s imagination with eye-watering SA Under-18 records of 11.22sec and 23.03sec in the 100m and 200m, in the process breaking the junior records of Mari-Lise Furstenburg (100m) and Evette de Klerk (200m).

Not only do those milestones place her first (in the 200m) and second (behind Jamaica’s Kerrica Hill in the 100m) in the world, they are also the kind of times that could bring qualification for this year’s senior world championships.

World Athletics’ qualifying standards for the 100m and 200m are 11.15sec and 22.80sec, and with Viwe having finished in front of her counterparts, one imagines she could attain those marks in competing against seniors. 

Slowing down

But try selling the idea of her going to Oregon to her coach, ex-SA 400m runner Paul Gorries: “I won’t let her go. We need to realise she’s 17 and that if she goes to the World Juniors this year, two years from now she’d [still] be going to her third World Juniors, which has never been done before.

“We need to manage her, not get excited and ahead of ourselves. I know the public would want to see more but we need to be smart about this. If we want her to run for the next 10 to 15 years – which she can do – that’s the right thing to do.

“Exposure is good, but too much too soon is not a good thing.”

The catch with Gorries’ view is that his charge, whom he describes as being up there with the most gifted athletes he’s ever seen, is born for this stage, handling interviews like an old pro and displaying the kind of self-assuredness that no teenager should.

“It’s been a very hectic week and having to balance it with school work has been tiring,” said Viwe the week after her heroics in Potch. “But I’ve always prayed to be recognised by the people of South Africa so I’m actually loving this and enjoying it.

“For a girl coming from Ngcobo like I do, being recognised and being well known is difficult, so I wanted to make the change and be the first girl from there to be well known. It’s not going to last for a long time, so while I can still be noticed, I’ll grab it with both hands.”

Half-lap

Although the scholarship offer by TuksSport High School (after two third-place finishes in the 200m and 400m at the 2019 SA Schools event in Gqeberha) was obviously key to unlocking her massive potential, because her driver father Zweledinga did not have the funds to send her to a high-performance environment, dispatching the 400m was the bigger game changer.

“Two or three training sessions after I started working with her I could see she wasn’t a 400m athlete,” says Gorries. “You’ve seen her 100m, she’s got seriously quick feet, quick cadence, a nice stride length [but] she is kind of short for the 400m.

“I told her she needed to switch to the 100m and the 200m and I slowly moved her to the 100m.”

The intervention was heartily welcomed by Viwe, who sounds like she gets tired just thinking about the one-lap sprint, let alone running it.

While pleasantly surprised by her 100m personal best times tumbling on three occasions in Potchefstroom, both athlete and coach agree that the 200m is her best event.

“My favourite is the 200m, but I do the 100m because Coach Paul sees something in me,” says Viwe, who is happier with the 100m record because of her 400m background.

“I like the 200m because of the curve and the fact that if you have a bad start you can catch up, but the 100m is so short that if you have a bad first 50m, it’s going to take a lot of power to recover.”

For those wondering if Viwe can withstand the scrutiny of suddenly being in the spotlight at such a young age, a situation in  which similar prodigies have wilted, Gorries is convinced that she has the temperament to prevail.

“She’s an introvert, is softly spoken and chilled, but the minute she steps on the track she becomes something else. Then you can see the aggression and attitude, everything you’d want to see in a sprinter. She’d rather die than lose.

“I remember last year at World Juniors, she made the semis and got knocked out and she was in tears,” he recalls. “I said: ‘You’re 16, you’ve just run a [personal best] and you’re in the semifinal, what more do you want?’ She said: ‘I wanted to be in the final!’ You can’t teach that.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • Am left with more questions…she went to world juniors last year, but going again is too much exposure at a young age? Let’s hope she is managed better than the last record breaking teenage female runner we had, and ASA doesn’t get involved.

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