Eight years and two days ago, Kevin Paul stood on the top step of the podium after the 100m breaststroke final at the Beijing Paralympics, just 17 years old, a neck weighed down by gold and a world record to call his own.
Just after midnight on Thursday, he was standing on the podium again, having won South Africa’s first gold medal of the 2016 Games. His celebrations were a little wilder this time around, the work that had gone into them had been harder and his path to these Games more wisely chosen.
“Jumping on to the block in Beijing and I was a new kid, getting away with a gold medal there,” said Paul, who was born with Poland Syndrome, a birth defect that left him without pectoral muscles in his left chest. This, in turn, has made his left arm a little shorter than his right, for which he compensates by using his shoulder muscles more in his stroke.
“Obviously the times were a lot slower then. I was 17 and I came away with a gold, but I don’t think I knew what it really meant, until now. Eight years later, almost to the day, to come away with that gold medal now, I think I truly appreciate what it means and how much work goes into it.”
Paul’s world record time in 2008 was 1:08:58. He went nigh on four seconds quicker here last night, his 1:04.86 just 0.24 seconds ahead of Denys Dubrov of the Ukraine, with Dutchman Duncan van Haaren third. He had touched the wall second just behind Dubrov.
“I went 1:04:86. It’s not my personal best time. At world champs I managed to come away with a 1:04:5 there. Speaking to my coaches in the build-up to this, it was never about a time. It was about getting in that pool, finishing first at the 100m and taking that Paralympic medal home. I can jump into a pool next week and do a faster time, but it’s not going to give me that gold medal.
“My coaches always tell me it’s not who touches first at the 50, it’s about who touches first once the race was over. We always knew we wanted to go out comfortable, go out steady. If there is anyone else who goes out a little harder, be comfortable in your process. You can’t control the other guy’s training and his racing. It all comes down to how we prepared. And it all paid off.”
But while Paul was celebrating, there was heartbreak for Hilton Langenhoven, another golden man from Beijing, who was disqualified from the 400m semifinal after he had run the fourth-fastest qualifying time on Thursday evening. He had infringed IPC athletics rule 18.5 and stepped out of his lane. It was a cruel way to lose out for Langenhoven, who had run a season best to qualify for the semifinals against a tough field. Langenhoven has 3/60 sight, or, in other words, what those with 20/20 sight can see at 60 metres, Langenhoven can only see at three metres. The 400m is a devilishly hard and tough race at the best of times. To do it through a blur of darkness is like sprinting between two electric fences at full tilt. Langenhoven won three gold medals in Beijing in 2008. He will take part in the long jump final tomorrow morning, an event he won gold in eight years ago and silver in Athens in 2004.
There was not such good news for Alani Ferreira, who was sixth in the 100m butterfly heat, while Roxy Burns, the cyclist, was last in qualifying for the 3 000m individual pursuit in an event she admits is not her favourite. Saturday’s 500m time trial is more her style.