STARTING track athletics as a senior at the age of 21, Robin April went on to become the senior men’s 880 yards record holder and champion in 1968.
This was a remarkable achievement by April, as the high school which he attended (Emile Weder in Genadendal) did not offer athletics.
Born in Paarl in 1945, he attended Zion’s Primary School where he was a “fairly good” athlete.
“I was introduced to athletics at primary school,” April says. “But there was no athletics at high school level.”
He was introduced to club athletics by a childhood friend, Danie Arendse – while studying at Hewat Teachers’ Training College, he joined the Athlone Amateur Athletics Club.
During his time at Hewat, April captained the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union’s athletics team to Durban in 1968. In those days, Hewat participated with the high schools in all the codes of sport.
Hewat Training College
April’s athletics career, like several other champion athletes, flourished at Hewat Training College.
(Another such athlete was the star 100m sprinter Nazeem Smith who was also the 400m record holder by the time he retired.)
April competed in the 400m and 800m, the latter being his main event.
Like the legendary Cecil Blows at his peak, April, too, is over six foot tall. The two were good friends – Blows competed in the sprints and long jump whereas April competed in the middle distance races and the 400m.
Some of April’s athletics friends at the time were Kenny Roman, Cecil Blows, Colin Barendilla, Edwin “Killer” Hendricks, Jock Manduray, Edgar Cloete, Sam de Wet, Jacob van der Berg and Wilson Claasen, the star junior 800m athlete who went on to establish a new SA senior men’s 800m record of 1 minute 54,8 seconds in the 800m in 1973.
He picks out Manduray of Natal as his biggest rival in the 800m. In those days, the Natal athletes travelled down to Cape Town to compete in club meetings.
Closer to home, he admired Kenny Roman who had a “real sprinter’s style” and Cecil Blows who had a “fluent and natural ability” in the sprints.
Rigorous training programme
April was a stickler for hard work and intense training.
“I trained five days of the week and mostly on the road. I also trained on the ash track of Hewat. In those days facilities were scarce,” says April.
He remembers his first 800m race at Hewat. “I only came third and that’s when I realised that I needed to work much harder to improve my performance.”
Soon after embarking on a rigorous training programme, April improved at such a tremendous rate that he dominated the 880 yards and 800m while at Hewat.
He clocked 1 minute 55,8 in the 880 yards. He was the Champion of Champions in the boys open 880 yards at the Green Point Track in 1968, the year he broke his own senior schools record with a time of 1:57,4 (old mark 1:57,8).
In the 800m, April clocked 1:56,7 – a record at the time.
April had no coach and essentially coached himself finding whatever literature he could find on the sport.
In the 1960s and 1970s, unlike today, communication was at a low level – television came into the country only later and the internet didn’t exist yet. Furthermore, South Africa was isolated from the rest of the sporting world because of its policies on segregation; the separation of whites from blacks. So, the athletes had very little or no interaction with international athletes or the latest training methods.
April would glean pictures and results from the local newspapers and sports magazines to inform himself more about the sport.
“The athlete I followed in the news and who had a great influence on me was Jim Ryan,” says April.
Ryan was an American middle distance athlete who won a silver medal in the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics in the 1500m. He was the first high school athlete to run a mile in under four minutes.
“At the time, Ryan was the athlete who influenced me. Later on, I followed the achievements of Sebastian Coe. He was a remarkable athlete during the late 1970s and 1980s. He was such a fluent runner,” recalls April.
April believes that many athletes would have been able to compete on the world stage if it were not for apartheid.
“Many good athletes were produced under the South African Council on Sport banner at club level and high school level. The club athletics were of a very high standard for its time (the 1960s). Many of the high school athletes belonged to clubs where they got specialised training as we knew it at the time,” says April.
He says without a doubt, that in those days, primary and high schools athletics were at a very high level, especially in the Western Cape.
‘Athletics united many communities’
He remembers the packed stadiums at Green Point Track and later Athlone Stadium.
“Stadiums were packed during school meetings and at the weekends where fans came to see the heroes. For the spectators and the athletes, the athletics were exciting and something to look forward to. Athletics united many communities. Spectators came from far and wide to participate. The athletes enjoyed themselves, win or lose, and mixed freely with one another,” recalls April.
April says if it were not due to “poor living conditions” at the time, “caused by apartheid”, many more athletes would have competed at school and club meetings.
Leading sports administrator
In his later years at Hewat, he and Norman Stoffberg founded the Hewat Athletics Club in 1968.
By 1970, when he was no longer studying at Hewat, he co-founded (1971) the Spartans Amateur Athletics Club as a young qualified school teacher. The other founders were Herman Abrahams, Mervyn Davids, Bothner Kiewitz and William Jordaan.
April stopped competing in athletics in 1970 (he was an athlete from 1964 to 1970) and devoted himself almost to “full-time” administrative duties as a young teacher.
“I was the sports secretary of the Western Province Amateur Athletics Union from 1971 to 1977 at which time I succeeded Leslie Lykert as president,” says April.
He was also the long-serving chairman of Spartans.
April was also the treasurer and convenor of the South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB) over many years. He is very proud of one of his last achievements as a SAAAB official.
The first SAAAB track and field team was picked in 1985 for the first SAAAB Prestige meeting at the Vygieskraal Stadium.
“I was the only SAAAB team manager at the time,” recalls April.
Sports unity came about in 1991, so April would have been manager during that period.
Lack of good administration
April is disappointed in the current lack of good administration and the lack of more black athletes (Coloured, Indian and Black) coming through the ranks.
“In my personal opinion, the reason the codes are progressing so slowly is the lack of good administration. People are in positions that they are not qualified for and they know too little about the sport. Not enough is being done to develop athletes, in general, as most are in it for position and financial gain,” says April.
Other than athletics, April participated in rugby. He played rugby for his primary and high school.
“In Genadendal, I played scrumhalf (!) at school while in matric. Sport at school was poorly organised,” says April.
He joined the Rangers Rugby Club in Paarl while in high school.
By the time April got to Hewat, he played as a loose forward for the college. There are even photographs of him playing wing.
His rugby talents were obvious and he played for the board, City and Suburban (Cities), while a member of the Lansdowne Rugby Club (Cape Town).
He reached the pinnacle of rugby excellence when was selected and played for the South African Rugby Union (Saru).
“I played in the same team that included some of the finest players of game. I remember Maurice Heemro, Gerard Peters and Joey George,” says April.
April seemed to have gotten the sporting genes of his father, Alec Thomson April, who was the South African tennis champion from about 1934-1941 as he recalls it.
April is married to Margaret Rose April (née Groenewald) and they live in Lansdowne.
Margie, as she is known, attended Wesley Practising School, Secondary School and Training College, and participated in athletics, netball, gymnastics and hockey.
“At the training college, I was involved in gymnastics under Tilly Kroneberg, the physical education teacher,” she says.
She was a young school teacher at Norma Road Primary School, Silvertown in Cape Town and involved in athletics and netball as a teacher under the Athlone Sports Union.
April retired as principal from Parkhurst Primary, another top athletics school in Mitchell’s Plain. He was also the driving force behind Athlone North Primary as a young teacher when the school dominated athletics in the Athlone Union in the 1970s.
Robin met his wife Margie through athletics. They have three children Robyn, Marc and Riaan and six grandchildren Alex, Jesse, Matthew, Levi, Miah and Tylor.