South Africa’s Sunette Viljoen has been one of the world’s most consistent javelin throwers of the decade. The Olympic silver medallist offers a glimpse into her life by answering our first impressions questions.
It was my high school coach, Marina Hamilton, who coached me for my two years in the sport from the age of 16. In my first javelin experience, aged 14, I didn’t really know what I was doing and all I succeeded in doing was hitting myself with the javelin. But because I had played cricket (she was to represent South African in cricket) since I was a young girl, I always had a natural throwing ability and the first time I tried again, I threw 26m which was the longest in the school at that time.
I remember Marina was also my English teacher and we had a nice bond. She always put me at ease and was always very friendly. By the time I ended my school career, I’d thrown 50.70m, which was a nice way to sign off our coach-athlete relationship before I moved on to university.
First javelin competition
It came the week after I first threw 26m in practise. Back then I did many athletics events such as the 400m, high jump and long jump. I was not so keen on the 400m and my 400m coach said I did not have to run anymore providing I threw over 35m in the javelin. That first school meeting I threw 36.92m.
First international competition
That came at the 1999 Pan-Pacific School Games, which were held in Sydney, Australia. I competed in the high jump where I think I jumped 1.75m for third or fourth. In the javelin I threw 43m for fifth. I remember each athlete stayed with a family and I was so fortunate the family I stayed with were lovely. I had my own room and I got to use the jacuzzi and swimming pool. One of my fondest memories was getting to visit the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. It was great to be given the chance to compete internationally at the age of 16.
First international medal
In 2003 I remember winning the bronze medal at the All-Africa Games in Abuja, Nigeria and then about two weeks later winning the gold medal at the Afro Asian Games in Hyderabad. To visit India at age 20 was amazing. I remember travelling in the tuk-tuks and I remember the mass of people on the streets.
First athletics disappointment
During my career I’ve had way more defeats than victories. The first big one I recall was not winning selection for the 2007 IAAF World Championships in Osaka. That season I threw 58.39m to place fifth at the World University Games in Bangkok, and I felt I’d done enough to justify selection. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Thankfully, I overcome disappointments very quickly. Of course I am upset at the time, but I’ve always worked quickly through them and looked to build myself new goals for the next year.
First sporting hero
I loved tennis and watching Wimbledon when I was younger. I recall watching the likes of Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario but my favourite player was Steffi Graf. I loved the way she moved on court – with so much grace. It was clear she was always very fit and physically up for the challenge. It was always nice to watch her matches.
First athletics injury
I have always been very lucky in that other than the occasional stiff back from throwing, I’ve had very few injuries. One of the first I had was an elbow injury early in my career, but generally I’ve been very blessed.
I remember as kids, my brother was given a soft toy lion, my sister a toy pug dog and I was given a cuddly soft tiger. For me, my career has been like that of a tiger and I also love that song by Katy Perry called Roar (which makes reference to a Tiger). I only ever had one Barbie doll, but I think the neck broke off after one or two minutes!
I had a dog called Snuffles. I grew up with this dog, which was a fox terrier, as a kid. He was always very lively, always barking. I have great memories of the dog. We had such a close bond and I remember how lively and happy he was.
First thing learned to cook
I am a disaster in the kitchen, but I always try. I used to help my grandmother in the kitchen and take all the ingredients and mix it for her. I made some meat, vegetable and pasta but everything was a total disaster. Some people have the ability to do things in the kitchen, but unfortunately, I struggle.
It was Ford KA – the car that looked a bit like a tortoise. I cycled throughout high school and university, but I later bought the Ford KA with my own money. I drove the car for about a year and a half to two years.
Steve Landells for the IAAF