When he set out to try kayaking as a school sport around 2007, Tokyo Olympic gold medalist Jean van der Westhuyzen did not see himself as a future Olympic champion. In fact, he didn’t even know paddling was an Olympic sport.
“I played rugby, cricket, hockey, all the standard school sports,” said van der Westhuyzen. “Kayaking was also an option and I thought it looked pretty cool. It was something a little bit different, so I gave it a go and really loved it.
“I didn’t have the idea that I would go to the Games at all. When I first started it was around the time of the Beijing Games – that’s when I realised that kayaking actually was an Olympic sport and that was something I could actually strive for. It was really exciting, but I think when you’re so young, you’re doing it for fun, really. I had no idea of what lay ahead of me. But I still do it for fun!”
Alongside K2 teammate Tom Green, van der Westhuyzen flew under the radar leading up to the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021, before bursting onto the international scene to win gold on debut.
“Tokyo was such a special event, but it had its ups and down,” confessed the 25-year-old.
“I think everybody now looks at the success of the K2, but we also had some bad failures prior to that, in the K1.
“But it was such a special team leading into Tokyo. We knew we were in really good hands and if we did what we had to do and laid down our best performance on the day, that we might be in for a shot.
“We were really lucky that it went our way and we had a great couple of races in the K2 that ended up leading to an Olympic Gold.”
The K2 Olympic Champion now has a special teammate in the Australian squad, sharing his preparation journey towards the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. At 20 years of age, Jean’s brother Pierre van der Westhuyzen is one of the youngest members of the Australian men’s sprint kayaking squad.
“It’s awesome to have a brother in the squad, sharing the experience of going overseas, of racing together. Being able to see him have his own journey and create his own career has been really special and I am excited to see where the next years take us.”
The next stop is of course Paris, where in just six months time Jean hopes to represent his country again, adding that if selected this Olympic experience would be much different to the first time around.
“[Before Tokyo] I had no idea of how big the Olympic Games are, the pressure you feel and just the magnitude of the event.
“I’ll take those experiences into the next Games, where I want to go knowing that I am preparing at my absolute best. I want to train hard and I want to enjoy it as well, have fun with my mates and race as hard as I can,” he said.
“It’s really motivating to go out there and race for your country. And it’s not just the day of the race, it’s also the days, weeks and months of preparations leading out to those competitions. Knowing that you have the opportunity to represent not only your country, but also your teammates, your family – it’s a huge honour.”