"In London the target is definitely going to be on my back, but I just want to go out there and do it with a smile and just enjoy every second on the track.”
There is a new generation of South African Para athletes hoping to make it to the top of the podium at the World Para Athletics Championships in 2017.
Charl du Toit is just one of the Rainbow Nation’s young stars now making their mark on the international stage and determined to lead the way at the London Stadium.
The 24-year-old claimed his first Paralympic title at the Rio 2016 Games last year, winning 100m and 400m T37 gold. Four years previously at the London Games, he failed to make the podium – but it was an experience that left a lasting impression.
“Just standing there and realising my dream of representing South Africa on one of the biggest stages in the world - it was just amazing.
“I look back at photos and I was just a 19-year-old boy with long hair, just wanting to enjoy the moment. I’ll never forget going out there and the crowd being amazing. I still had about 50 or 60 metres left in the 800m when Michael McKillop crossed the finish line. The crowd just exploded because he broke the world record and I got goose bumps as I was still running and trying to finish my race.”
Back in 2012, du Toit was just starting out on his Para athletics career. Heartbroken to be knocked out of the 100m after the first round, he watched on as his teammate Fanie van der Merwe went on to win gold.
“The first words I said to Suzanne (Ferreira, South African coach) after I didn’t make the final was ‘Can I please give him his flag after he wins gold tonight?’ So I gave him his flag for his victory lap after his 100m,” explained du Toit.
By Rio 2016, it was all change. Du Toit won double gold – and, fittingly, it was van der Merwe who handed his young counterpart the South African flag as he ran around the track celebrating his victory. The changing of the guard was well underway.
Van der Merwe retired from Para athletics after the Rio Games – fellow South Africans Arnu Fourie and Ilse Hayes are also expected to retire after London 2017.
Much like his experienced teammates, van der Merwe remains a source of inspiration as du Toit looks to claim his first world title back where his dreams began.
“Fanie was a real inspiration to work with and a big mentor for me as well, helping me through the years. He was actually the first guy at Stellenbosch who helped me with blocks. It was an honour to share the last part of his journey with him as well.
“It’s an honour to be described in the same breath as him and I hope I can do as well as him – that guy medalled at three consecutive Games, each World Championships he’s competed in - that’s just amazing.”
At Rio 2016 the men’s 100m T37 was dominated by Africa – du Toit and van der Merwe won gold and bronze respectively while Egypt’s Mostafa Mohamed won silver. The north African remains a threat to du Toit’s title-winning ambitions this summer too.
“He’s a brilliant guy and a wonderful guy in the call room as well. I remember after the Games he came to me in the village, he messaged me because he just wanted to meet up - we exchanged shirts and he gave me a gift as well.
“But I definitely want to win, don’t get me wrong. Each athlete who lines up wants to be the best and wants to win gold. In London the target is definitely going to be on my back, but I just want to go out there and do it with a smile and just enjoy every second on the track.”