And while my own lofty predictions were often crushed by poor performances on the international stage, I knew I could always rely on Mbulaeni Mulaudzi to keep my hopes alive.
Athletics can be a brutal sport, with one slip on the blocks, a minor tactical error or a glitch in a run-up often making the difference between winning gold and missing the podium completely.
Mulaudzi is one of the few track and field athletes since readmission who have absorbed the pressure, fulfilled expectations and instilled fear among the best in the world in his discipline.
He first showed real potential as a senior athlete when he bagged the 800m silver medal at the 2000 African Athletics Championships in Algiers. At the age of 19, to step onto the podium in an event dominated by African athletes was no small achievement.
And he never let up. Two years later, Mulaudzi won the Commonwealth Games title in Manchester, in 2004 he secured the world indoor crown in Budapest, and in 2006 he won the World Athletics Final.
Aside from those victories, he pocketed a multitude of silver and bronze medals along the way, and Mulaudzi’s only problem at major international championships was a poor tactical approach. He had a tendency to get boxed in off the final bend, with no gap on the inside lane to unleash his sprint down the finishing straight.
Having developed a reputation as a perennial bridesmaid, often filling one of the lower steps on the podium, the SA record-holder finally came good, tackling a major global championship with the necessary vigour to take the sting out of the kicks of the best East Africans and Europeans.
When the gun went at the start of the final at the 2009 World Championships, Mulaudzi hit the front and stayed there.
He controlled the race so well that even Yuriy Borzakovskiy’s trademark finishing sprint had no answer to the South African’s dominant approach, as the Russian trailed home in fourth place.
That win was undoubtedly the highlight of a remarkable career that included eight medals at major international championships.
Mulaudzi, struggling with injuries, was offered a business deal this year which was “too good to refuse”. He accepted, and promptly vanished from the athletics scene as fast as he had appeared.
A shy, unassuming athlete, Mulaudzi deserved better from the national athletics federation. Few athletes over the last two decades have earned a better send-off, but he was allowed to vanish into the Venda sunset, track spikes in hand and a bag of medals around his neck.
Watching Mulaudzi hold off the chasing group in Berlin will live as long in my mind as Elana Meyer’s lap of honour with Derartu Tulu in Barcelona and Josiah Thugwane’s finger wave, with a desperate Lee Bong-Ju in tow, in Atlanta.
Farewell champ. Well done for living up to the hype and thanks for the memories.