Clarence Munyai can pinpoint the exact moment his athletics dream was born.
Aged just 14 at the time, the South African schoolboy recalls a teacher showing the teenager a replay of Usain Bolt competing at the London 2012 Olympics. Utterly captivated by the Jamaican sprint superstar, he immediately made a vow.
“I told myself that, one day, I’m going to go to the Olympics,” he recalls.
Remarkably, just four years later, Munyai achieved his dream, competing in the heats of the 200m at the Rio Olympics – that same event where Bolt would go on to claim a hat-trick of Olympic titles.
Yet that is far from the end of the story. Three years on from his first senior global experience, the South African is maturing nicely. Last year a show-stopping time of 19.69 at the South African Championships aroused the attention of the global track and field community and the Pretoria-based athlete approaches the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 optimistic of a good display.
Big life changes early on
Born and raised one of five siblings in the suburb of Muldersdrift about 45 minutes from the Johannesburg CBD, sport was always an important part of Munyai’s life and that of his identical twin brother, Terrence.
Attending a private school, he excelled as an inside centre in rugby. Good enough to earn a trial for the Lions - the premier professional team in the city - it was, however, the inspiration of Bolt that switched his focus to sprinting.
“My twin brother and I were both very fast," he says. "I always used to win the school 200m and my brother the 100m.”
Yet while Terrence’s interest waned, Munyai remained fully engaged and after winning a medal at the 2014 national junior championships he decided to take the sport to the next level.
Barely training at the time, he knew he had much untapped potential and sought out the coaching help of Hennie Kriel via Facebook. The South African coach agreed to take on the precocious talent, but working with Kriel required the then 16-year-old athlete would have to relocate 65km from Johannesburg to Pretoria.
“It was a big move,” adds Munyai. “I left my family behind and changed schools. At first my parents (his father is a salesman and his mother a domestic worker) were not keen. I went from attending a private school to go to a government school. But I told them that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to pursue a dream and to see where it took me.”
Near miss in Bydgoszcz, but Rio-bound as a junior
Adapting to life training most days was not easy but in 2015 – aged 17 at the time – he ran an eye-catching 200m PB of 20.77 in Pretoria.
The next year he blasted to a lifetime best of 20.36 in Germiston to win the national U20 title and secure selection for the World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz.
In Poland he endured mixed emotions, finishing fourth (20.77) in the 200m final behind 2019 world 400m No.1 Michael Norman, who struck gold in 20.17.
“I didn’t know whether to be disappointed or happy,” he says of his performance at the World U20s. “I ran times in the heats and semi-finals which would have won me a medal in the final but it was still a decent performance.”
Yet he could not afford to wallow in the disappointment after winning his spot on the South African team for the Rio Olympics. Describing his selection as “the best moment of his athletics career”, he had achieved the dream just four years after watching that Bolt video.
Witnessing his compatriot Wayde van Niekerk set a world 400m record and grabbing a photo with Bolt were just two of the highlights of his Olympic experiences.
On the track he performed creditably for an 18-year-old, finishing third in his 200m heat in a time of 20.66 and just missing out on a semi-final spot by just one place.
“I’d never been in a stadium so full,” recalls Munyai. “It was magnificent. I raced against Adam Gemili (who finished second in Munyai’s heat). Before the race he made me feel very welcome. He kept me calm and said to me ‘don’t worry about it'.”
Next, an African U20 title
In 2017 the progress continued. In March he raced to an African U20 record of 20.10. He was later crowned African U20 200m champion and set a world U20 best of 31.61 for the rarely run 300m distance in Ostrava behind Van Nierkek, who set a world senior best.
He went into the 2017 World Championships bubbling with optimism. However, disaster struck in his heat when - despite crossing the line third and in an automatic qualification spot for the semi-finals - he was disqualified for stepping on the inside of his lane on the curve.
“This was the only time I have done this in my career but I had to take it like a man,” he says. “My main target (for 2017) had been the African Juniors and I had to think that there would be other championships.”
19.69 felt like ‘slow motion’
Training in Pretoria under the coaching of Kriel and alongside the likes of Commonwealth 400m hurdles bronze medallist Wenda Nel, South African women’s 100m hurdles record-holder Rikenette Steenkamp and 2018 world U20 400m hurdles champion Sokwakhana Zazini has been inspirational.
All of whom have played a part in contributing to his outstanding early form of 2018 – which saw him power to a 100m PB of 10.10 and then record that staggering 19.69 national record in the semi-finals of the South African Championships in Pretoria – a mark that currently places Munyai 11th on the world all-time list for 200m.
Yet perhaps the man least surprised with what he achieved in the semi-final was Munyai himself.
“After running 20.23 in the morning heats, I felt really easy,” he says. “I then sent my mum a message to say, 'you should listen to the four o’clock news because I am going to run fast'.
“The semi-final felt like I was in slow motion. Around the curve I said to myself don’t step on the line like in London (World Championships). Then at around 190m when I saw 18 seconds on the clock I knew I was on for something special. To record 19.69 was an even better feeling than running the 300m world U20 best.”
Carrying a hamstring niggle which worsened overnight, he was not able to take his place in the final and, unfortunately, the injury continued to frustrate leading into the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.
Nursing the injury, he finished fourth in a high-quality Commonwealth Games final won by world 200m bronze medallist Jereem Richards. But in an effort to grab a medal, Munyai tore his right hamstring in Gold Coast and was forced into a four-month stint on the sidelines.
Returning to training last August, he and his coach decided to work out a new training programme designed to take Munyai to the next level. Daily physio treatment is now undertaken to avoid injury while sled work has been introduced with the aim to improve the sprinter’s speed maintenance at the back end of the race.
A quiet domestic campaign – in which he ran a 20.77 clocking in the 200m heats of the South African Championships into a -2.6m/s headwind – was followed by a solid third-place finish at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai in 20.37 having led for much of the race.
For the rest of the 2019 campaign, the 21-year-old sprinter is wisely adopting a cautious approach. “I’d just like to be back running and competing to a high level again," he says. "For the World Championships in Doha the goal is to win a medal, that is the dream.”
And as Munyai has shown during his fledging career, he is the sort of athlete who is more than capable of turning those dreams into reality.
Steve Landells for the IAAF