Johan Cronje trudged through 11 years of hurt, frustration and near-misses – but won a world 1500m bronze in Moscow last year. SPIKES charts the South African’s incredibly long and painful route to glory.
Born to Danie (a steeplechaser) and Sarina (a former South African record holder over 800m, 1500m and 3000m), Johan Cronje was always likely to be an athlete.
After a promising junior career, which included fifth place finishes at the world youths and world juniors in 1999 and 2000, Cronje seemed destined to prosper. This is what happened next...
2002/03 – My first injury
Cronje suffered a major injury for the first time in his career. Due to inexperience, he failed to adequately rest a hip problem which developed into Iliotibial band (IT band) syndrome. "I didn't know how to handle the injury" says Cronje, who was forced to miss the 2003 season.
2004 – "I was a fatty"
Back to form, Cronje qualified for the Athens Olympics. Three weeks before the Games, he got involved with a game of football at a training camp. Felled by a late tackle, he damaged his achilles and took up eating.
"I was young and stupid" he says. "Because I wasn't training, I started eating too much. By the time of the Games I'd put on 4kg. I was a fatty. It was a complete lack of discipline, a little bit like the smoker who quits and then starts eating too much – I had stopped running and started to eat."
Cronje still progressed through his heat in Athens but finished 11th in his semi-final.
2005 – No coach, more food
A fitter, leaner Cronje trimmed his personal best to 3:35.58 (from 3:37.28) during an early season outing in Doha. He then spent ten weeks on the European circuit, a decision he regrets and another poor platform for healthy living.
"I had no coach to look after me, I didn't do a lot of training and I put on a lot of weight."
Oh, Johan! At the Helsinki 2005 World Championships he again finished 11th in his semi-final.
2006 – Injured again
Preparing for the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Cronje felt ready for his best ever season. But another muscular injury ruled him out of the competition. It was another year of disappointment, and it hit him hard.
"After that I was kind of done for the season. I ran a little bit in Europe, but it was nothing spectacular."
2007 – Nosaka
A lifelong sufferer of shin splints, he sustained a stress fracture of the tibia which later developed into (another) IT band issue, which wrecked his season. Consequently, he performed poorly and failed to qualify for the world champs in Osaka. "Not a good year" he says, bluntly.
2008 – Fractured Olympics
Yet another year of disappointment. The stress fracture redeveloped, meaning a summer at home in South Africa rather than in Beijing's spectacular Bird's Nest (below)
2009 – False dawn
The Bloemfontein-based athlete returned to training with renewed vigour. For the first time, Cronje undertook a structured training programmed in which every kilometre was monitored and accounted for.
This paid dividends on the track, and he set a new PB in Monaco (3:33.63) – arriving in Berlin for the world champs full of confidence.
"I was in the best shape of my life, yet I totally messed up the heats. I went in there without a plan. In my mind I was already in the final."
Cronje finished ninth in his heat and was eliminated. His newfound confidence had manifested as complacency. "I was very depressed and thought about leaving the sport."
2010 – Surely not again...
This was, even for Cronje, a "slow year". A third stress fracture prevented him from competing at the world indoors. He only ran a handful of times all season.
2011 – A chink of light
Cronje failed to compete for a calendar year after undergoing knee ligament surgery. Lesser men would have walked away from running entirely, but he's since identified 2011 as a real turning point.
"For some reason the operation changed my biomechanics in such a way that I no longer struggle with shin splints. It was a blessing."
2012 – The worst pain yet
After starting the season late because of the operation, he needed to dip below the Olympic qualifying mark of 3:35.50 twice to win selection for the London Games.
Sadly, he achieved the feat only once and missed out on selection by just 0.15. "I was very disappointed," he says.
"Since I was a little boy I always had it my mind that as I would be aged 26 and 30 at the time of the 2008 and 2012 Olympics – these would be my biggest years.”
2013 – O.M.G in Moscow
Cronje rethought his strategy, and decided to race for pure enjoyment. Things finally started going to plan.
He ran a national record of 3:33.46 in Doha and, upon returning to South Africa, became a father. He chose to spend July at home with his wife and infant son Daniel, training in Bloemfontein rather than racing.
Cronje arrived at the Moscow 2013 World Championships "mentally fresh" and, with a perfectly timed late burst, clinched bronze in the 1500m final.
“I’m probably one of the few people who would have kept on going after all the setbacks," he says. "But I’m still in the sport because I love athletics, running 1500m and competing. I always had this feeling in the back of my mind that I could actually be good and win medals.”
He finished the season on high another high, setting a new national record of 3:31.91 in Rieti.
2014 – Go, Johan!
This year, he'll target the world indoors in Sopot and the Commonwealths in Glasgow.
"I'm now in position to compete in all the nice meetings, and it looks like it will make the last few years of my career worthwhile.”
He's also now working as an investment specialist, and plans to use his twilight years on the track for enjoyment.
Johan Cronje – you've earned it.