BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
THE athletics reputation of woodwork master Tobias Philander had a positive influence on a group of athletes at the Perseverance High School in Belhar. This group included the talented Ruben Booysen, who quit rugby to focus on athletics.
Philander, of the Elsie’s River Amateur Athletic Club, was a top athlete and record-holder (steeplechase) in the early 1980s. By the late 1980s, he was a teacher at Perseverance.
Booysen arrived at Perseverance from Riebeeck Primary School only to switch from rugby to athletics.
“I played rugby in my first year of high school, but I quickly realised that selectors decided who they wanted to pick, compared to athletics where it’s you and the stopwatch,” said Booysen.
Disenchanted with rugby, Booysen took up running in 1993. He preferred running on cross-country terrain.
He reached the Champion of Champions in 1993 on the back of informal training as an under 15 athlete.
“I started with track and field athletics in 1993 as an under 15 athlete. Subsequent to the track and field meetings, Mr Philander, who was our woodwork teacher, saw us ‘training’ and decided to coach us,” remembers Booysen.
He then joined the Elsie’s River club.
By then Booysen had built up reasonable form during the winter months in 1993 as a boy’s under 15 athlete and was selected to the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union’s (WPSSSU) cross-country team who travelled to Kimberley for the South African Senior Schools Sports Association’s (SASSSA) cross-country championships.
By 1994, under the guidance of Philander and the Elsie’s River club, Booysen walked into the WPSSSU track and field team who travelled to Kings Park Stadium in Durban. More honours were to follow when he cracked a spot on the SASSSA team in the boys under 16 800m and 1500m races respectively.
His greatest rival in senior schools’ track and field athletics was Hyrin Jacobs of Heideveld High School. The two athletes represented WPSSSU.
“He was a very good middle-distance athlete, but I do not know what happened to him in later years,” says Booysen.
“We trained at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and the University of the Western Cape because we all stayed in Belhar and the facilities were within walking distance. During the cross-country season, we trained in the sand dunes, known as Die Bult in old Belhar. We were a group of about 15 boys and girls who trained daily,” he said.
He not only received support from the Elsie’s River club but also from his mother who graciously supported him financially in athletics locally and nationally.
Uniforms in those days were either donated by teachers at the school or paid for by the mostly working-class parents from the communities.
“My mom was struggling to make ends meet, but made sacrifices to pay for whatever I needed in athletics,” says Booysen.
His athletics friends included Steven Swarts, Ricardo Williams both from Perseverance. Symphony High School had Esau Faro, Joseph Strydom, Shawn Abrahams, and Willem Jack, his neighbour.
The group of athletes had met at a club athletics meeting with some of the athletes already having completed matric.
Needless to say, Symphony and Perseverance provided a pool of talented athletes for middle distance and cross-country teams in WP during the early 1990s.
Booysen’s highest honour in the sport was when he represented SASSSA and at South African Amateur Athletic Board Track and Field Meeting at the Dal Josafat Stadium in 1994.
During the schools’ ‘sports unity process’ in 1995, he qualified for the WP boys under 17 track team in the middle distances.
It was the first time he had competed in ‘rounds’ in the respective races (800m and 1500m) in order to qualify for the final.
WPSSSU had straight finals for the middle and long-distance races.
Presently, he coaches two sprinters in Belhar, but says the atmosphere and environment are “not the same compared to back in the day”.
He is also the coordinator for ‘kids’ athletics’ within the Western Province Athletics Development programme.
Booysen is also the chairperson of the Elsie’s River Athletic Club.