Sheryl James takes bronze as SA wins a fifth medal at the Tokyo Paralympics

Sheryl James of SA celebrates after winning bronze in the Women's 400m T37 final on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 31 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Sheryl James of SA celebrates after winning bronze in the Women's 400m T37 final on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 31 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Image: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

And then there were five. On Tuesday, South African athletes won their fourth and fifth medals at the Tokyo Games, the first in the morning heat of a motorsport track two hours away from the city, and the second in the evening rain of the Olympic Stadium.

 Sheryl James took bronze in the 400m for the cerebral palsied in the final event of the day’s action at the Olympic Stadium, adding to SA’s third gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics, taken by Pieter du Preez, who won the hand cycling time trial for C6 quadriplegics.

 Du Preez says there is no defining line between the time before and after the accident that made him a Paralympian. The 2003 accident that saw Du Preez the cyclist, swimmer and runner become Du Preez the hand cyclist, swimmer and still a runner in his soul, was part of the same journey. It has been a journey that has seen him become the first quadriplegic to finish an Ironman triathlon, a path that made him a world champion, and, on Monday, the voyage that took him to the Paralympic gold medal.

 First the facts. The 41-year-old won the 16km time trial on the Fuji Speedway in 43 minutes 49.41 seconds, almost two minutes ahead of Fabrizio Cornegliani of Italy.

 Then the scare. On the main straight of the former Japanese Grand Prix track, on the first 8km lap, another competitor in another class opted for a sho’t left directly in front of him and almost caused a collision, which wasn’t a good thing for a paralysed athlete who also has sight issues.

 “I saw him so late, I swerved and tipped on to two wheels, otherwise I would have hit him properly. My arm touched his wheel. That’s how close it was. I was flying.”

 Then the story. Du Preez was hit by a car while out on a training ride in 2003. The impact broke his neck, rendering him paralysed from the “nipples down”, as he puts it. When he competes, he is limited to a small group of muscles to go with that immense will. He has no triceps, nor any finger or hand movement, just wrist extension, his biceps and shoulders. But what wide shoulders they are.

 And now the tears. “I can’t explain it. It’s very special,” said Du Preez. “I was in tears after I crossed the line, but tonight I think I’m going to have an even bigger cry in my bed. It’s hard to explain the journey here. As a six-year-old I was dreaming about winning gold at the Olympics. Obviously, I hadn’t thought I’d be competing in the Paralympics. Then in 2003 while I was out cycling I broke my neck in an accident. There have been so many tough times and fights to get here that it’s difficult to explain.

 “There really is something special about 2021, though, and I have now won both the world championship title and Paralympic gold this year. The Paralympics should have been held last year, but it (2020) wasn’t a good one for me. I fetched my son from his preschool and fell badly. I completely dislocated my AC joint, snapped my coracoid process off my scapula and had a plate in there for six months. I couldn’t train properly.”

 Then the thanks. “I have got so many people to thank, but my helper and friend, Walter Lutch, has played such a big role. Because of Covid-19 my son and my wife couldn’t come with me to Tokyo. They’ve been on every trip with me since 2016, so that part was hard. My son has also been born through this five-year journey, so it’s been a very special time.”

And then the possible fairytale. Another medal? On Wednesday he will take part in the road race.

 Sheryl James had taken a close fourth in the 200m final on Friday, losing out on a podium by two tenths of a second. On Tuesday she made no mistake, finishing almost two seconds ahead of the next runner.

 “I had fun out there,” said James. “It was definitely hard out there. I haven’t been competing at this level for long and so it’s a privilege to be out here.”

 Ernst van Dyk, in what will be his final Paralympics, took ninth in his hand cycle time-trial category, but that is not his focus for these Games and he was, to use the phrase, soft-pedalling to save himself for Wednesday’s road race

 “The time trial and the road race used to have a day’s rest between,” said Van Dyk at his eighth Games. “That’s no longer the case and the body doesn’t recover as fast as it used to. But this was a good warm-up and it settled the nerves for tomorrow. After one-and-a-half laps I knew I had no chance of a medal, so I used the race to go through the motions and settle into things. The road race is going to be really hard.  We have more climbing to do than the Argus but over 80km distance, so it’s going to be hell. This is a fantastic venue, but the course is challenging and hard.”

 Johanna Pretorius took fifth in the 100m for the visually impaired on Tuesday with a personal best of 12.33 secs. Dyan Buis, who has cerebral palsy, failed to defend his 400m title from Rio, fading after a strong start to finish fifth. Anrune Weyers could not add to her 400m gold for amputees after missing out on the 100m final despite a season’s best of 12.66 secs.

 Toni Mould took an impressive 10th against a strong field in the Women’s cycling time trial, while the favoured Christian Sadie’s fourth in his 50m freestyle heat was not enough for the final.