Van Dyk Tries For Ten In The Boston Marathon

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Boston Athletic Association officials expect 27,000 runners to cross the start line of the 115th running of the Boston Marathon on Monday.

Most will be high-level recreational runners, fulfilling a dream of finishing one of the most storied marathons of the season.  One will have the chance to win his tenth Boston Marathon.

Five days before Marathon Monday, while many elite athletes staying at the Fairmont Copley Plaza are already resting up for the big day, South African Ernst Van Dyk isn't thinking of relaxing quite yet.

"Tomorrow's a very busy day," he said.  "I have three appearances at three different venues so that's going to be a long day."

Nine-time Winner

Ernst Van Dyk poses with former South African President Nelson Mandela.  (Courtesy Photo)
Ernst Van Dyk poses with former South African President Nelson Mandela. (Courtesy Photo)

Van Dyk has won the Boston Marathon elite wheelchair division nine times, more than any other athlete in any division.  He's won a gold medal at the Paralympics, and he's shaken the hand of Nelson Mandela.  At 38 years old, he doesn't have a lot left to prove.

"Nine was the record, so no pressure anymore," Van Dyk says.  "Now it's about coming here and enjoying it.  I wouldn't say I'm in the best form I've ever been.  I'm getting older every year and I'm getting busier every year.  I've trained hard.  I've prepared well.  I might not be as fast as I used to be but you never know, maybe it's enough on the day."

In his first eight wins in Boston, no one was able to challenge Van Dyk's simple strategy:  sprint out to a lead at the start and let the turns and hills of Boston's course take him out of view of his competitors.  Every time Van Dyk won, he did so without his nearest competitor in sight, until he went for his historic win number nine.

"At about halfway the pack caught up to me," Van Dyk remembers.  "And then I got dropped through the Newton hills.  I was lying fourth by almost a minute."

Van Dyk, the guy who's used to leading for all 26.1 miles didn't take the lead until there were just 400 meters, and forty seconds, to go.

"Once they had dropped me, I thought maybe this isn't such a bad thing if I don't win today," Van Dyk says.  "And then the fighting spirit in you kicks in.  If someone's going to win this, they're going to have to take it from me.  I'm not going to give it to them.  So it's going to be a race to the wire and we'll have to see how it turns out."

Tenth Win is Coming

Van Dyk is confident he'll get a tenth win in Boston, but maybe not this year.  He's got other things on his mind:  a full time job as the sports events manager at a university, his own company distributing sports equipment to the disabled in Africa, a prize winning collection of koi, and his two and a half year old daughter, who he says makes time fly out the window.

Bright and early on Thursday morning the ever-busy Van Dyk is at Riverview School in the Cape Cod town of Sandwich.  Riverview is a school for kids and young adults with language, learning and cognitive disabilities.  Riverview students are also one of the best audiences around, giving Van Dyk a standing ovation before he's even said a word.

Van Dyk talks to patients and caregivers at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in Sandwich.  (Karen Given/WBUR)
Van Dyk talks to patients and caregivers at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in Sandwich. (Karen Given/WBUR)

As photos from his life are projected onto a screen behind him, Van Dyk talks about growing up in apartheid South Africa, before anti-discrimination laws of any kind. People with disabilities were not guaranteed equal access to education or employment.

When Van Dyk was born, without legs and with other physical challenges, the doctor told his parents to put him into an institution and forget about him.  Instead, they took him home and encouraged their young son's natural athletic streak.

Advice from a Champion

Van Dyk tells the students to figure out their purpose in life, bounce back from adversity, and strive to maintain balance.  Before too long, it's time for questions and answers.

One Riverview student can't contain his enthusiasm.

"I just wanted to say that slideshow of yours is awesome!" he says.  "I'm sorry you can't walk.  I wish you could.  You're special the way you are!"

Van Dyk can and does walk using prosthetics, which sometimes causes confusion among racing fans and hotel staff.  He's used to questions and comments like these.  Most of the time, kids want to know about the crashes, which sometimes occur at as much as 50 miles per hour.

Riverview gives Van Dyk another standing ovation before each and every student lines up for an autograph, and sometimes a comment or two, from the 9 time Boston Marathon champ.

Madison McAllister is a fifteen-year-old from Bar Harbor, Maine.  She says she's "freaking out" to meet Van Dyk.

"I heard him speak today and he was wicked good," McAllister says.  "And after he was done I looked at a couple pictures of him and he looks pretty good.  Just so proud of him.  Just an awesome job he's doing.  He's a great athletic person.  I hope he wins the marathon on Monday."

On the Road

Next up, Van Dyk and his entourage take a short drive down the road to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in Sandwich.  Spaulding has been sponsoring Van Dyk for the past seven years, after his previous sponsor, a German company, dropped him after he failed to medal in the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics.

Van Dyk tells the patients and caregivers at Spaulding that when he lost that sponsorship, he felt like a failure.  But, years later, when his story was featured one Sunday evening on South Africa's equivalent of 60 Minutes, Van Dyk says he learned to think of his success in different ways.

"By the Tuesday I got a phone call from a lady in a little town by the coast in the middle of nowhere, and she said that night that my story went on TV she was watching it and the TV was on mute and she had a loaded gun on her coffee table and she was ready to take her own life. And she saw my story and it drew her attention and she put the volume up and she listened and she was calling me to thank me because when she saw my story she realized that the few things that had gone wrong in her life were nothing and she had no reason to her own life and she just wanted to thank me."

After that call, Van Dyk no longer measures his success by how many races he's won or how many sponsorships he's earned.  He measures his success by how many lives he touches.

Ernst Van Dyk kisses his historic ninth Boston Marathon championship trophy on Monday, April 19, 2010.  (AP)
Ernst Van Dyk kisses his historic ninth Boston Marathon championship trophy on Monday, April 19, 2010. (AP)

Secret of his Success

Maureen Banks, President of Spaulding Cape Cod and the Chief Operating Officer of the Spaulding Rehab Network, believes that’s part of how Van Dyk wins so many races.

" I talk a lot about energy," Banks says.  "And I think Ernst doing this type of work which inspires other people also gives him the energy to keep doing it."

And unlike that Germany company, Banks says Spaulding's not going to cancel Van Dyk’s sponsorship if he doesn't win his tenth Boston Marathon on Monday.

"No, no, no, no," Banks laughs.  "You heard Ernst talk about there's many ways of winning and many ways of feeling successful.  I think it is the same.  Ernst is a winner for us."

Van Dyk and the rest of the elite wheelchair athletes will start the marathon at 9:17 on Monday morning.  A little less than an hour and a half later, someone will cross the finish line first in Boston's Copley Square.

This segment aired on April 16, 2011.

Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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