The South African shot put athlete flew under the radar into Paralympic bronze in Rio
South Africa’s Tyrone Pillay was in the best shape of his shot put career and felt primed for a medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. The postponement back in March shook up his expectations however, the 40-year-old remains determined to close his athletic years on a high note.
“COVID-19 has surely affected the way of life and has changed norms around the around,” Pillay said.
“The sports world has not been spared either and my training regime has been affected. In March, before the Games were postponed, I was at the peak of my fitness and competitiveness. With the postponement of the Games, I definitely need to re-evaluate myself and focus on what I can.
“Only time will tell how ready I will be for the Games in 2021,” continued Pillay, who has a gym set up in his garage, “I however plan to work as hard as I possibly can and give it my best shot for the last time in my sporting career.”
The South African wants to better his result from his Paralympic debut at Rio 2016, where he won his first major medal, a bronze in the men’s F42 category. It was a sweet feeling after missing out on podium finishes at back-to-back podium World Championships.
2016 Getty Images
How it began
Pillay, who was born with a left leg impairment, loved playing cricket, and his father was a strict motivator in teaching his son how to live with his impairment. But at 22-years-old, his father passed away, and Pillay shifted his focus from sports to helping his family.
It took Pillay seven years to return to sport - he was 29. He had watched the Beijing 2008 Paralympics, and thought that his body seemed better built for shot put. So he worked on building muscle mass towards his goal of qualifying for London 2012. Looking to increase from his then 75kg frame, he watched YouTube videos to help with his weight training.
"I had the determination and resilience, so I put in all the extra effort to make sure I got where I wanted,” Pillay said.
I went from an underdog to a medallist.
Hard work pays off
Pillay’s international competition debut was in 2011 at the Sharjah Para Athletics Championships.
“I still remember my kit delivered to my doorstep in the evening,” he recalled. “I was so excited. Imagine at the age of 30, I was so excited like a small kid.”
He finished fourth but seeing one of the South African teammates win a gold medal made him proud.
The competition however was stiff, and Pillay failed to make the London 2012 squad. However, another four years of hard work led to his debut at Rio 2016, where he flew under the radar. He defied the odds and won his first Paralympic medal adding to South Africa’s 16 medals.
With plans to retire after Tokyo 2020, he is hopeful of going one better than he did at Rio 2016.
“I went from an underdog to a medallist,” Pillay said. “The bronze medal win brought the most absolute amazing feeling together with a sense of accomplishment at a personal and national level. Every Para athlete dreams of competing at the Paralympic Games, this is the pinnacle of Para sport in my view.”