Preparing to lead the SA team in the nation’s strongest track and field discipline, Ruswahl Samaai hopes his rapid rise in the global rankings will culminate in a podium place at the Rio Olympics.
One of six SA men to have achieved the qualifying standard of 8.15m in the men’s long jump for next month’s Games, Samaai will spearhead a three-man contingent in the absence of Zarck Visser, who was omitted from the team after struggling to find top form in his comeback from injury, and Beijing 2008 silver medallist Khotso Mokoena, who will focus on the triple jump event.
The 24-year-old University of Johannesburg star will be joined in Rio by former world junior champion Luvo Manyonga, an exciting but unpredictable prospect, and US-based athlete Stefan Brits, who shattered his personal best by 17 centimetres with a leap of 8.22m in Tallahassee in May.
Speaking from his training base in Italy this week, as an ambassador for Panasonic, Samaai said he was eager to turn out in the Olympic cauldron as one of the leading medal contenders in his specialist event.
“I live for competition, and I want to compete against the best because I’ll give my best every time I step onto the field with them,” he said.
“It’s all about improving for me – improving my speed, my technique – every time I jump.”
Samaai first made an international impact in 2014, leaping more than 8m for the first time before earning a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Though he went on to set a personal best of 8.38m to win the 2015 national title, he was eliminated in the qualifying round at last year’s World Athletics Championships in Beijing.
Aiming to make up for that disappointment, Samaai took a big step forward this season and cemented his spot among the Olympic medal favourites.
He started the 2016 campaign by finishing fifth on debut at the World Indoor Championships in Portland in March, equalling Mokoena’s national indoor record of 8.18m, and he went on to defend his national title in Stellenbosch in April with a leap of 8.34m.
In May, he sailed four centimetres further, matching his career record of 8.38m to win the Diamond League meeting in Doha, as he climbed to fifth position in the world rankings.
Last month he sharpened up for the Games by securing his first African title in Durban with a wind-assisted 8.40m leap.
While he admitted he felt the expectations of the nation ahead of the prestigious showpiece in Rio, Samaai said he thrived on top-flight competition and was confident he could deliver in the final.
“I love the pressure, with people getting behind you and willing you on,” he said.
“It’s a good thing and I live for that pressure. I’m ready for this.”