Johannesburg - Ever since he was in primary school, Breyton Poole’s calling card has been breaking records and taking names.
When he began doing the high jump as a Grade 4 pupil at Somerset West Primary School, he broke Springbok Handré Pollard’s record of 1.15m by a centimetre. Last Saturday, he equalled South African record-holder Jacques Freitag’s youth record of 2.25m at the Western Province Athletics Open.
The next thing that needs breaking on the 17-year-old’s lengthy to-do list is the stereotype that short men can’t jump. The high jump has for years been the sole preserve of men who are on average 1.90m tall – the 2017 World Youth champion (2.24m in Kenya) is a dwarf-like 1.72m in comparison.
So how is it that the vertically challenged Grade 11 pupil from Paul Roos Gymnasium packs the leap of a flea on steroids? The fact that his father Herman was a distance runner and his mother Charmaine a sprinter and long jumper may explain his speed endurance and explosiveness, but his height all but nullifies all explanations for his “little jumper that thought he could” routine.
Bennie Schlechter, the retired Namibian teacher whose sole purpose is to coach Poole, theorises that the youngster named after former Bok winger Breyton Paulse “is strong in the head. He’s motivated and very dedicated – he’s a freak. This guy is a workaholic and his will to be the best is unbelievable".
It’s an assertion that’s backed by Poole’s father, who says his son is “mentally very strong, he’s already proved so many people wrong to be where he is”.
While the mind is clearly willing, Poole’s 1.72m and 58kg body shouldn’t be, but Schlechter partially explains why he’s able to clear the same heights as the 2.04m Freitag: “He does a lot of plyometrics to increase his jumping power, and we work quite hard on his speed and explosiveness as well. But he’s got the perfect technique. He's been with me for four years now and we know each other quite well".
Family is short
Schlechter said one of the first things they did when they first met was to change Poole’s approach to the crossbar: “When he came to me, he used the semi-circle approach, which is very old-fashioned and we changed it to the J-approach.
“With the J-approach, you run straight and curve back to the upright. It works on speed, like an aeroplane, and you need to get your centre of gravity over the top of the crossbar. Once you get all those things together, you’ve got a good jump".
Looking ahead, there is good news and bad news for Poole’s development. The good news is that he doesn’t do gym to shore up his strength just yet as he is “still too young”; the bad news is that Poole’s much-needed growth spurt is highly unlikely to happen.
“I wish he’d grow another 12cm to 13cm, but he won’t because the whole family is short. The best he can do is 5cm, tops".
The risky thing is that Poole, a promising rugby player – he played scrumhalf for Western Province in the Grant Khomo Week (Under-16 level) last year – has already committed to attempting to make it as a professional athlete.
His father says it was important that Poole, who also had provincial colours for hockey and cross country, and did the 800m and 1 500m before the workload got too much for him, made the call sooner rather than later.
“Anything can happen in rugby,” said Poole senior. “You saw what happened with Wayde van Niekerk when he played in that rugby friendly at Newlands [the world 400m record holder damaged his knee ligaments]. Breyton was in the same invitational team as him...”
Schlechter said he was desperate to get together with Sweden’s 2004 gold medallist Stefan Holm, whose height of 1.81m would mean he has a better understanding of working with Poole’s challenges.
The retired Swede is now a coach and Schlechter is keen to bend his ear about everything
“I want to talk to him about certain exercises to increase his speed, jumping power and heights. Holm struggled with the same thing, so maybe he can tell us where we can improve".
Poole’s heroics, which were a surprise to athlete and coach as they were only targeting a 2.15m jump, have earned him a provisional spot in Athletics SA’s Commonwealth Games squad.