Boston Marathon: Wheechair Champ Ernst Van Dyk

Apr 17, 2010
Outside Magazine

Marathon Monday in Boston if full of dramatic comebacks, split second finishes, and lots and lots of pain. But throughout the past ten years, there's been a new phenomenon in the men's wheelchair division: consistency. One man alone has claimed victory from 2001-06 and 2008-09. 

Ernst Van Dyk goes for an all-time record at the DSCN0523Boston Marathon on Monday as he hopes to win his ninth title. Currently, he's tied with women's Push Rim Wheelchair champion Jean Driscoll, at Milwaukee native who won the Boston Marathon for the eighth time in 2000. Born in 1973 in Ceres in the Western Cape of South Africa, Van Dyk was born with the congenital absence of both legs. Growing up, he was an avid swimmer and gymnast and participated in the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics in swimming. Van Dyk holds a full-time job at Stellenbosch University Sport Performance Institute, where he was the first student with a disability to graduate with a degree, in addition to starting his own business this year importing sport equipment for athletes with disabilities in South Africa. Melanie Lidman caught up with Van Dyk a few days before the race to hear about his success both on and off the race course. 

Photo: Ernst Van Dyk poses with three-time Women's wheelchair champ Wakako Tsuchida from Japan as they accept their bibs for Monday's race. 

To be the all-time winningest Bostonian would be quite an accomplishment. What do you think about it?

When I started out doing this I never really thought about going after this for a record amount of times. I always take every race on its own and give it my best. But after about the sixth or the seventh time, I came through the line and Jean Driscoll was sitting there and I said to her, "You know, I'm going after your record." Winning this for the ninth time will probably be the highlight of my career. It will solidify the consistency I've had throughout my career and the performance I've been able to produce at this race every year. I'm still only 37, and the guy that won the Paris marathon last weekend  was 51 and he set a course record. So I've got a lot of years left. So whether it will happen this year, or whether I'll have to wait a few years... it's going to be exciting. Whatever happens out there I'll be very happy. 

In many years you've finished minutes ahead of second place. Would you mind having a rival or a challenge in this race? 

Oh, I would love it. I think it would be so good for the race and the media to see a sprint finish coming down Boylston Street with five or six wheelchair guys. That would be incredible. This course doesn't really allow for that, but you know last year between second place and first place there was very little time, so maybe it will happen this year between first place and sixth there will be very little time. 

What has the support been like back home in South Africa? It's a big year for South African sports. 

Well, you know with the world cup coming up, they're not really thinking about anything else except the soccer World Cup. But the race will go out live on TV back home. A lot of my personal fans are rooting for me. We have a rich history of marathoning in South Africa, and they understand the sport. They know what it will mean to win this race. 

You've been able to develop some personal relationships here in Boston during your many races. What has that been like? 

You know the relationship with Spaulding Rehab has been really a long, fruitful one. They're going to start building a new hospital in Charleston, MA pretty soon and I've been part of that process, and been part of the fund raising. I've been leading the team that is running in the race and doing fund raising for the new hospital. So it's really incredible to be part of that. Every year before the race we go to so many different schools and different areas where I speak and give my message. I tell them that no matter what people tell you that you can't do it, it's always possible if you work hard for it. So it's been great and it's been something that's added another dimension to my sport. 

What message do you want to give to handicapped people around the world?

I think today in the world that we live, a handicap is no longer a limitation. It's an opportunity to make something out of your life that somebody else next to you that's able bodied couldn't do. We have a unique opportunity and it's about wanting to go out there and make a difference. If you understand it's going to take a lot of hard work and you're willing to accept that, then anything is possible. 

Last time you were at Boston your daughter Lexi had just been born, and you were a sleep deprived new dad. How has it been going this year?

She's almost a year and a half now, so the last two months things got a bit better as she's a little bit more independent now and finding her own way. It's been giving me a little bit more time to train, but I don't know if two months has been enough, we'll see on race day. But it's been such a privilege to have a daughter and be a dad. It adds a new dimension to my life, and it's something I really enjoy. I'm having to find the time to train and having to sacrifice a bit more. But she's getting fun now. I can't take her out when I'm training, but we'll get there. Hopefully I can bring her and my wife next year. My wife has never been to Boston so hopefully we can make a plan and get them here next year.

How do you mentally stay at the top of your game for 10 years?

I think it's all about focus. By being able to be consistent and living a balanced life. If you're balanced it's very easy to stay focused. I'm balanced in that I have lots of dimensions to my life--I've got my family, my own company, I've got another job, I've got my sport, hobby, I'm happily married, I do motivational speaking. It's doing all those things instead of just doing one thing and working your butt off at one thing and eventually not getting there. 

How do you find time to train with all of that?

You have to schedule it, it's like any person that's busy these days. It's a challenge, you have to work at it.

In other marathon news, elite athletes Catherine Ndereba and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot both withdrew from the 114th Boston Marathon due to injuries.   

--Want to run a marathon? Check out coach Hal Higdon's interactive plan for beginners in the Outside Fitness Center.

Filed To: Fitness

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