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VC celebrates Wits Olympians and Paralympians

- Nandi Buthelezi

Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Zeblon Vilakazi hosted Witsies who were part of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

A total of six Witsies - three current and former students and three staff members, represented South Africa at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games, which took place between July and September 2021. Garreth Ewing (Head coach of the SA Men’s Hockey Team), Rusten Abrahams (SA Men’s Hockey Player), Robyn Johnson (SA Women’s Hockey Player), Nomnikelo Veto (SA Women’s Hockey Player), Dr Siyabonga Kunene (Chief Physiotherapist: South African Paralympics Team) and Josie Milella (volunteer for Hockey and Rowing) were part of the global spectacle.

Wits Sport’s Senior Operations Manager, Kabungo Mubanga welcomed the celebrants and esteemed guests which included the Dean of Students Mr Jerome September and his Office, as well as colleagues from the Wits Alumni Office and the Wits Sport Office.

Appreciating the sporting talent, Vilakazi, congratulated the athletes and staff on their individual milestones.

“To finish fifth in your pool Garreth, is a really big achievement – Wits is proud,” said Vilakazi to the hockey coach.

 Garreth Ewing prepared South Africa to face Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Netherlands and Canada in Group B of the men’s hockey.

Ewing, a Wits BA alumnus, who also brags multiple Varsity Hockey, USSA and premier league titles reflected on the road to the Olympics and how team SA made the most of the disruptions brought by the pandemic. “The postponement of the Olympics in 2020 was a challenge for us. We felt as if we were well prepared at that stage, but in retrospect the break actually allowed us to work through aspects of culture and prepare ourselves even more. I think that in the end the break was the best thing for us.”

Psychology student and 2021 Wits Sportsman of the Year, Abrahams who plays midfielder for the Wits men’s hockey first team, was amongst the athlete’s that got to play for the green and gold.

“Landing in Japan and arriving at the Olympic village was a surreal feeling. The world’s best athletes surrounded me, it is a feeling that is very difficult to describe. It is a moment in my life that is very difficult to top. Even though a select few get to experience such moments that does not mean you can't be one of those select few,” said Abrahams who is also holds a Wits honours degree in Biokinetics.

Former Wits women’s hockey first team player and 2019 Wits Sportswoman of the Year, Robyn Johnson also attended the event and shared her views on the importance of education while pursuing a career in sport: “Education has always provided me with security in knowing that I have something to fall back on. No one can take education away from you whereas sport is different - there is risk of injury, not being selected etc. So it’s really important to focus on a career outside of sport especially if it’s hockey as it’s not a professional sport in South Africa.”

Johnson completed her Bachelor of Education: Foundation Phase in 2014 and went on to pursue a BA in Media Studies (2018) and Basic Research Skills (2019).

Kunene, a sports physiotherapist by profession with vast experience in working and travelling with sporting teams, also shared his experience with Team South Africa as Head of physiotherapy at the 2020 Paralympics. “It is always a privilege and something to be excited about when you are chosen to work and travel with SA athletes as part of the technical and management team. I have worked with SA athletes for over seven years now, and I have enjoyed every bit of time I spent with athletes. Working with athletes living with disabilities is one of the most fulfilling works in my field of neuromusculoskeletal sports physiotherapy.”

“It is a good thing to be recognised and appreciated for the work you do. The breakfast with the VC meant a lot to me, it confirmed to me that Wits does care and pride itself on its students and staff,” said Kunene, a senior lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy in the School of Therapeutic Sciences.

The South African Olympic Team returned with three medals. The gold was won by Tatjana Schoenmaker who not only won the women’s 200m breaststroke but also set a new Olympic record. She also clinched silver in the women’s 100m breaststroke. Bianca Buitendag bagged the third silver for South Africa in the women’s shortboard competition.

The South African Paralympic Team returned with six medals. Ntando Mahlangu won two gold medals, one for  men’s T63 long jump setting the new world record and another for the men’s 200m. Anruné Weyers won gold for the women’s T47 400m, while Louzanne Coetzee claimed silver in the women's T11 1500m and a bronze for the women’s T12 marathon. Lastly, Sheryl James placed third, winning the bronze in the women’s T37 400m upon Paralympic debut.