BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
THE boy is poetry in motion.
These were the words South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB) president Harry Hendricks chose to describe the talent of champion javelin thrower Fred Grovers.
“Mr Hendricks had watched me at the SAAAB meeting in Durban in 1987 when he said that I am poetry in motion,” Grovers recalls proudly. “After I heard that, I thought those words were fitting for Nathan de Kock, especially when he unleashes the javelin.”
Athletics records show that Hendricks was a talented senior athlete (high jumper) himself at the SAAAB Track and Field meeting at the Paarl Sports Ground on 1 and 2 January 1948. Richard Rive was a junior high jumper at the same meeting and another name that resonates, Norman Stoffberg, was a 440 yards athlete. Eddie May was the junior men’s 440 yards athlete. Rive, Stoffberg and May also competed in the long jump.
De Kock’s career had come to end by 1986 and Grovers was the senior men’s javelin champion and record-holder, his name boldly printed in the 1987 programme because of his efforts at the 1986 SAAAB championships in Paarl.
New senior men’s record
Says Grovers: “I broke the 60m mark at a meeting at the Vygieskraal Stadium with a throw of 60,60m prior to the SAAAB meeting later that season. At the SAAAB meeting, to my surprise, I threw the javelin 65,12m – a senior men’s record.”
With this throw, Grovers had become the first SAAAB javelin thrower to throw the javelin beyond the 60m mark.
The old mark of 59,82m was held by De Kock.
De Kock was the senior men’s champion with a throw of 58,74m in Port Elizabeth in 1985. Grovers was the junior men’s champion with a throw of 57,26m – a new junior men’s SAAAB record at the same meeting.
In 1986, De Kock did not travel to the SAAAB meeting in Paarl. Grovers had taken over the spotlight.
So when and where did an interest in athletics start for Fred Grovers?
“For starters, I did not start athletics with the javelin event. I was a pupil at Rio Grande Primary School (Manenberg, Cape Town). In Std 3 (grade 5) my interest in athletics started,” said Grovers.
He competed in several events; the 50m, 80m, 100m and 200m later with limited success at interhouse and interschools level.
Sprinting, long jump and high jump
Grovers was a better primary school athlete when he reached Std 5 (grade 7). He started to win his sprint and long jump events and even tried the high jump thanks to his many sessions as a gymnast at the Downs Civic Centre in Manenberg, but “high jump wasn’t really for me”, Grovers says.
He remembers how his knee bumped his lip when he went over the bar.
“The bar was set as high as my chest. I managed to do the ‘scissors kick’. When the bar got raised to shoulder height, it was only me and a boy from Tafala Primary School that were left in the competition.”
Grovers would go on to win the competition and was carried on the shoulders of his supporters to the principal’s office, a man by the name of Mr Dodgen.
He had left the primary school to attend Manenberg High School.
Although he made the Champion of Champions meeting at Athlone Stadium when he was in Std 6 (grade 8), he got found out in the sprints and high jump. “I just wasn’t good enough.”
Discovering the javelin
Before high school, Grovers had never participated in any of the other field events such as shot put, discus and javelin. But at Manenberg, the athletes had to try out all the events. Amazingly, Grovers had never seen a javelin in primary school.
“We got to the javelin area and there was an older athlete by the name of Suleiman. So I looked at the line of javelins stuck in the ground. I grabbed the orange 800g javelin. Suleiman showed me the American Grip and tucking the javelin under my shoulder on the run-up. I tried it and it worked. He then told me to pick up the green javelin. Suleiman then demonstrated how to throw the javelin which he did. He had used the orange one. He then told me to throw the green javelin. The green javelin had gone past his mark. He gave me a second throw and the result was the same. I did not get a third throw. By then he had asked whether I ever participated as a javelin thrower, I said no,” Grovers recalls.
Suleiman laughed and said that Grovers should enter for the javelin event. Grovers then went to the library to read up about his newfound event.
From Manenberg to Mitchell’s Plain
His high schools years as a javelin thrower were unfortunate. His family had moved from Manenberg to Rocklands in Mitchell’s Plain, Cape Town.
Rocklands was a newly-built school in the early 1980s. The school did not participate in the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union’s (WPSSSU) inter-schools athletics meetings for three years while Grovers was at Rocklands. Instead, the school had participated in triangular meetings.
“Our Physical Teacher (PT), Mr Eugene Joseph arranged triangular meetings for three years. Those triangular meetings helped me a lot in later years. Mr Joseph played a pivotal part in my development as a javelin thrower at Rocklands,” says Grovers.
Unfortunately, Grovers never knew about the athletics meetings that took place at the Vygieskraal Stadium on Saturdays.
“If I had known about the club athletics meetings at Vygies, I might have been in the Western Province team much earlier.”
He was a member of the Vikings, Hewat and Olympiads athletics clubs at different times of his career.
Magnificent rise to the top
As a schools’ athlete, Grovers potentially missed out on several prized WPSSSU colours. He got his chance in his matric year to wear the blue and white colours of senior schools when he came second to De Kock (58,36m a new WPSSSU record) in 1984 and first in 1985 at the Champion of Champions meeting at the Athlone Stadium. He was on the bus to the South African Senior Schools Sports Association (SASSSA) meeting in Johannesburg.
On the many trips to the SA schools and club championships his buddies were the late Bernard Adams (former SA discus and shot champion and record-holder), Julian Williams (former SA high jump champion and record-holder), Susan Newman (shot and discus) and Clyde Van Graan (the former under 21 high jump SAAAB champion and record-holder).
Grovers’ rise to the top was magnificent. The second place to De Kock was a major achievement for Grovers as he was still a junior athlete to De Kock and fairly new to the javelin event.
In 1985, Grovers was the SA Schools champion, the SA Board junior men’s champion and the SA Board junior men’s record-holder.
His main competitors were his “dear friend” Nathan de Kock and Mark Botha of Grassy Park. De Kock has a twin brother Jonathan who was also a WPSSSU field athlete and record holder. In 1981, as an under 17 Bonteheuwel High School athlete, Jonathan held the WPSSSU javelin record of 61,65m. Nathan held the discus record of 36,01m.
In the junior division, he remembers names such as Hassiem Heuwel and Glynn Burgess.
Changing of the guard
He got his chance to beat De Kock at the Spartans Athletics Meeting in 1985 when De Kock kept on throwing outside the javelin sector and when he did manage to find the sector, the javelin wouldn’t stick. Grovers recorded a distance of 58,05m. This competition signalled the changing of the guard in the senior men’s javelin event.
Grovers had proven himself to be authentic javelin thrower of his time.
During the sports isolation years, Grovers admired Jan Železný from the Czech Republic and Uwe Hohn of Germany.
He believes, given the same opportunities and facilities, many Sacos athletes would have been brilliant for their country on the world stage.
“The ridiculous policy of apartheid in the 1980s when I was an athlete denied all athletes on both sides of the political spectrum the opportunity to showcase their talents to the world. Athletics in South Africa was at its peak in SAAAB and in the South African Amateur Athletics Union (SAAAU),” recalls Grovers.
These days he keeps himself busy with pistol shooting under the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC).
“In 1990, I bought my first firearm for self-defence, and later another one for the IPSC,” he said.
Grovers got married in 1989 to Mandy Fillmore at the age of 22 and soon afterwards stopped competing the same year. They have two sons Ilyaas (26) and Tarquin (22).