There’s no ‘I’ and only two eyes when this team runs
Having a good pair of extra eyes is only half the battle won if you’re a blind athlete
Having a good pair of extra eyes is only half the battle won if you’re a blind athlete. A good set of extra legs and stamina is non-negotiable.
Then, like Bloemfontein athlete Louzanne Coetzee, you’re definitely in the running to beat your own world record.
Coetzee, 25, who is completely blind, competed at the World Para Athletics Grand Prix in Berlin, Germany last weekend in the 800m, 1,500m and 5,000m races.
Taking to the track with her guide Xavier Adams, she shattered the T11 (totally blind) World 5000m record by 13m,97 seconds. Her new record now sits at 18m,00s,34.
Coetzee was born with no vision due to Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), a rare genetic eye condition that appears at birth or in the first few months of life. Having only started her running career in her first year at the University of the Free State in 2012, she admits that she “didn’t think I’d be running internationally”.
In the 5000m heat she only had herself to beat as she was the only one who entered this specific race.“It’s not nice to run against yourself because there’s no one to chase. I had to keep my own pace. It’s harder to run on my own. But that also made me run harder; if there were other people on the track I could’ve been more tactical and then I might have not beat my time,” Coetzee said.
Despite her modesty off the track, Coetzee has been breaking records before Berlin. In 2016, she broke the world record at the Nedbank National Championships for the Physically Disabled.
The 16-year record, which stood at 20:05.81, was previously held by Lithuanian athlete Sigita Markeviciene, set at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney.
Coetzee bettered this by 48.75 seconds when she and her guide at the time, Khotatso Mokone, sprinted hand in hand past the finish line.
But 2016 brought with it some disappointment when Coetzee was disqualified at the Rio Paralympic Games.Together with Mokone, she came third but got disqualified under International Paralympic Committee rules which stipulate that a guide is not allowed to pull the runner. She was disqualified from the 1500m heat after what was perceived by officials to be excessive assistance from her guide.
She later explained that Mokone in fact turned his shoulder towards her when he was speaking but, in the video footage, it looked like he was pulling her. Officials found that he had passed in front of her while overtaking another athlete and it was deemed to be illegal assistance.
This year she’s been tethered with Adams, a 22-year-old soldier. The duo has been training together since January.They first tested their partnership at the FISU World University Cross Country Championship in Switzerland in April, where she became the first visually impaired athlete to compete in this competition.
Adams said he felt an “instant connection” with Coetzee. The soldier said becoming a guide was not intentional, but he saw a need during a training session.
“It just happened. I was at training one day and saw that one of the blind athletes needed a guide so I stepped in. The whole thing is about her but the way we work is as a team,” Adams said.
The two train twice a day, six days a week on average and seven days a week when they have a competition coming up. In between, Coetzee trains with other guides to give Adams a break.
For Coetzee, being bound to the right guide is essential.
“When it comes to choosing the right guide, you have specific characteristics in mind. I was training for a cross country race with Xavier; we trained so well together that I decided he should guide me in Berlin. We just clicked,” she said.
Both said that training together was important to develop their “rhythm”.While Adams also gets a medal for guiding when they race together, the accolade goes to Coetzee. The infantry soldier seems content to “narrate” the race for Coetzee.
“I am faster than her, but when I’m guiding I have to keep up with her pace and because I’m an athlete I know what to do, I know how fast to go and I know where she’ll start feeling difficulties. I tell her how far we are in the race. I’m her eyes and ears because she has to concentrate on running. I just say ‘we can, we will, we must’; there’s no ‘I’ when we are running,” Adams said.
Coetzee handed in her thesis and has now completed her master’s degree in reconciliation and social cohesion. After taking a short break from training, she will return to the track next week to begin training again. After a short academic hiatus, Coetzee plans to do her PhD and hopes to change perceptions of people with disabilities through her research.
“There needs to be more awareness regarding people with disabilities in South Africa,” Coetzee said.