Olympic Odyssey: Mr Commitment
Former World Number one Chris Hill takes us to Beijing through the athletes eyes
For the last couple of seasons, Hendrik De Villiers, the South African who is known to train whether weak or weary, has been gently rapping on the door of World Cup success.
Hendrik De Villiers, the second man after Conrad Stoltz to represent South Africa at an Olympic Games, knows the meaning of the word commitment. Thats because he is constantly reminding himself of its definition.
The day before heading to the opening round of the BG World Cup series, De Villiers, 26, missed a morning training session. This played on his athletes conscience all dayhe had to make amends.
So that night, he headed back to the track to belt out the session he missed in the morning. The session of eight broken one-kilometre repetitions was a tough one, made all the more difficult because of the downpour it was completed in and the fact it was already dark.
It had been raining for four days so I put off my training session, De Villiers said. So that night I knew I had to go to the track. It was still raining and pretty dark but I still completed it.
These self-remonstrations are what De Villiers terms commitment sessions. They are completed to remind him of the level of training focus required in an Olympic yearsessions that immediately put right what has gone astray.
The commitment sessions happen if I have been too lazy in the morning and havent got my three sessions in for the day, he said. I think a lot of people would just skip the session, so when this happens I have to complete the session, even if it means training at night.
That track set was one of my commitment sessions. They are not planned sessions they just come along. Preferably, you never have to do them, but if your day has not worked out then you have to make up for itlike when I miss a session because I have to apply for visas for travel because we have to get so many of them.
This constant re-dedication to training and its endless mental demands is what has quickly thrust this quietly spoken but determined athlete to World Cup glory and possible Olympic contention.
Having burst onto the World Cup circuit in 2005, De Villiers, the ex-rugby and cricket player who has been swimming and running since he was six, made an instant impact with the quality of his results.
2004 was my first World Cup, in Salford, he said of his 16th place World Cup debut. I was doing triathlons in South Africa, not on the international circuit and I was studying accounting as well. But I have no regrets doing it that way around because I think there is a big step up from under19 to the elite level.
De Villiers then punched out fifth at the 2005 Madrid World Cup one year later and secured another fifth in the inaugural 2006 Richards Bay World Cup in South Africa; nine seconds behind winner Tim Don and one place in front of Athens bronze medalist Sven Riederer.
These breakthrough results set up De Villiers biggest achievement in the sport, his first World Cup win. The fact it came on home soil at Richards Bay couldnt have been better for him and it proved a shot in the arm for triathlon in the country as well.
In Richards Bay last year, we had a minute and a half deficit off the bike which we had to run down, he said of the race. I finally caught Russias Alexander Brukhankov with 400 meters to go. It was good timing but it was hard work because I was doing most of the pace setting out there.
The race almost seems an afterthought to the 2008 version of De Villiers. He doesnt talk wistfully of champagne laden celebrations, he just completes the reflection with an analysis of how the race has set him up for the Olympics. It was a hot and humid race, which is good to compare to Beijing, he concluded.
It certainly is, though he will be doing most of the preparation in relative isolation.
When many of the World Cup athletes train together on tour, De Villiers stands apart, preferring to train mostly alone.
I train with [World Cup athlete] Sander Berk from the Netherlands and there are a couple of younger guys and an athlete that I coach, he said. But when I do a quality session Im pretty much on my own; I think that makes you stronger.
Having said this, De Villiers is not without supporters, marrying last year, and coached by Czech triathlete Lucie Zelenkova, showing he has the right mix of helpers to get the job done.
And the new president of Triathlon South Africa, Gideon Sam, is moving the sport in the right direction.
Gideon Sam used to be the president of Rugby South Africa and then Swimming South Africa, De Villiers said. When he got into Swimming South Africa in 1996 there was only Penny Haynes then and no one else so he really built the sport up to 2004. He really knows how the sport business works.
Of course it doesnt hurt having an athlete the calibre of De Villiers to grow the sport behind.
With the definition of commitment at the forefront of his mindengraved during late night track sessionsthe quiet money could be on South Africas Hendrik De Villiers, a dark horse for the Olympic top eight, or better.
Former World Number one Chris Hill brings his unique elite athlete perspective in weekly Olympic columns to ITUs website, triathlon.org. He competed on the ITU World Cup circuit, winning three titles and ten medals in total. He was crowned the overall World Cup series champion in 2001. That same year he was silver medalist at the ITU World Championships in Edmonton, Canada. Watch for Chris Hills column, Olympic Odyssey every week on triathlon.org.