Senatla’s born to run

Blitzboks speedster Seabelo Senatla is set to realise his Olympic dream, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Seabelo Senatla was seven years old when he fell in love with sprinting. The year was 2000, and the US speedsters Maurice Green and Marion Jones were in dominant form at the Olympic Games in Sydney. The images of those athletes flying down the track at Stadium Australia were broadcast to all corners of the globe, and as fate would have it, a small boy in a far-flung town in the northern Free State was watching on his parents’ TV. The energy of Green and Jones made a profound impression. Young Senatla’s dream to run faster than anyone else on sport’s grandest stage was sparked to life.

‘I remember watching the Olympics when I was younger, seeing the best of the best race in those 100m sprints,’ Senatla tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘When the race was over, I would rush outside and then proceed to sprint as if I was one of those athletes. I ran as fast as I could.’

In high school, Senatla ran the 100m in 10.6sec. Towards the end of his school days, he began to take rugby more seriously. By the age of 20, he was a regular feature for the Blitzboks on the World Rugby Sevens Series circuit. By 21, he had won the Currie Cup with Western Province.

That desire to represent his country at the Olympic Games, however, never wavered. And now, as the Games prepares to welcome rugby back into the fold, and as the Blitzboks set their sights on Olympic gold, Senatla is all too aware of the significance of this opportunity. 

‘I’m an athlete at heart,’ he says. ‘I’ve been keen on running since I was very young, and have always viewed the Olympics as the pinnacle. Unfortunately, I never made it in athletics [to the point where he could represent South Africa], but now I have this chance to realise my dream, albeit for the sevens side.’

Team SA won six medals at the 2012 Games in London. Like other South Africans, Senatla witnessed the success of the swimmers, rowers, canoeists and athletics stars on live TV.

Four years on, and the Blitzboks stand a great chance of adding another Olympic gold to South Africa’s tally. Senatla will have an opportunity to realise his childhood dream.

‘I celebrated when South Africa won those medals in 2012,’ he says. ‘It was very exciting to see stars like Chad le Clos and Caster Semenya doing great things for  our country.  

‘I still follow many of those codes, and I’ve been impressed with the way [sprinter] Wayde van Niekerk has been performing in recent months. Hopefully they can all do well in Rio, and hopefully the Blitzboks can play their part too.

‘I remember the moment when I realised I wasn’t going to make it to the Olympics as an athlete,’ he continues. ‘I had to readjust my goals. I really wanted to be a Springbok, to play in the 15-man side. I saw the Blitzboks as a stepping stone to that goal.

‘But the way things worked out, there was an opportunity for me to realise my Olympic dream with rugby on the schedule at the 2016 Games in Rio. My goals changed again. It’s been something I’ve been working towards ever since.’

The Blitzboks have reason to feel encouraged ahead of their Olympic Games campaign. They may have finished the 2015-16 Sevens Series in second place behind Fiji, but one of their brightest stars is burning white hot. Indeed, after his exploits in the recent Sevens Series, Senatla appears to have ascended to a new level of competence.

He scored 66 tries in the 2015-16 Sevens Series, a whopping 18 more than the next best try-scorer, Perry Baker. Senatla led the series for linebreaks (72) and ranked in the top 10 for runs (145) and tackles made (107).

In late May, he was named in the Sevens Series Dream Team for the second consecutive season.

‘I’m the type of person who is always looking to the next challenge,’ he says of that 66-try effort. ‘I’m always looking to push myself. Last season, I scored 47 tries. Before the 2015-16 season, I set myself the challenge of scoring 60. Why not? Why do we play this game, why do we play sport if we are not looking to the next challenge? You will never be perfect, but you can strive towards perfection.’

The stat of 107 tackles highlights his determination to make an impact on defence.

‘For me it’s not just about tries and attack. You have to be constantly looking at other areas of your game. You have to strive towards becoming the complete player.

‘I think people underestimate how crucial defence is in sevens. They want to see tries and attack, but there’s a lot of work that goes into the defence.

‘A while ago, the coach [Neil Powell] said he didn’t see me just as a speedster but also as a defender. I’m glad the hard work has paid off for me this season. Every team on the circuit is capable of scoring tries. Defence is what separates the good from the best.’

While the Blitzboks lost a few close games and finals over the course of the 2015-16 Sevens Series, they shouldn’t be wanting for confidence in the crunch games at the Olympics. The reason for such confidence stems from their remarkable success in 2014.

After finishing second to New Zealand in the Sevens Series, the Blitzboks bounced back to win gold at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Senatla played a big part in both campaigns, and few would argue that his showing in the final of the Commonwealth Games tournament went a long way towards securing the gold medal. He scored two tries to help South Africa clinch their first Commonwealth Games title.

Senatla remembers that tournament with fondness.

He believes the lessons learned there will serve him and his teammates well in the lead-up to the Olympics in Rio.

‘Winning gold at the Commonwealth Games was a big moment for us,’ he says. ‘We will take some confidence from that achievement. It shows that we can win the big tournaments. It gives us an idea of what’s required and the work that needs to be put in beforehand.

‘Don’t get me wrong; we haven’t been to an Olympics before, we realise it will be different. But there is something to be taken from beating New Zealand in the Commonwealth Games final.’

– This article first appeared in the August 2016 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Jon Cardinelli