IF KYLE Vander Kuyp hadn’t moved from Sydney to Melbourne at five weeks of age, and been adopted by a Dutch-Australian family, he might have been a State of Origin rugby league player.
Years later, when he was able to connect for the first time with his Worimi and Yuin heritage, he found out that among his cousins were the great Ella brothers, rugby league royalty.
And you can still see that in his shape; the strong shoulders, powerful body and the huge carves of a speed machine.
If he’d stayed in Sydney, he wouldn’t have gone to Ringwood Little Athletics as a kid and he might not have been lining up, against all the odds, in the Olympic 110 metres hurdles final at Atlanta in 1996, with the crowd roaring for one of his all-time heroes Colin Jackson of the UK and the two standout US competitors Allen Johnston and Mark Crear.
Making a sprint final at any Olympics is an incredible feat and when Kyle Vander Kuyp visited the Leongatha Little Athletics Club last Friday night, on a tour to three clubs in Gippsland at the weekend, he looked back on that moment with great fondness.
“I was able to look back on that day and know what it takes to prepare yourself for an important meet.
“For me, everything went right in the lead up and I was ready.”
Kyle was the fittest he’d been in his life and had just run a 13.60 eleven days earlier at an athletics meet in Germany.
“My coach told me I was ready to get into the Olympic Village and he felt we’d find some improvement there with the other competitors around us.
“We got there and found some other athletes to do a few block sessions. It was just what I needed to complete my preparations.”
Vander Kuyp found ½ a second in those sessions and surfed the wave through the heats and the semis to post a new Australian record in round two, a time of 13.29 which still stands, and he put it out there again in the final, arguably running faster with a 13.30 into a head wind, to speed through the finish line just behind the main field in seventh place.
For those who know their athletics, including Bruce McAvaney and Jane Fleming who commentated the race for Channel 7, it’s a huge achievement for any athlete to make a track sprint final, let alone an adopted, Aboriginal kid from suburban Melbourne.
Coming out of lane 2, Vander Kuyp got a stunning start to reach the first two hurdles right there with the group, but he fell slightly behind at the third of 10 high hurdles and spent the remainder of the race in a personal battle with the man on his inside, the Cuban Erick Batte whom he went on to beat.
Allen Johnson crossed the line first in a new Olympic record time of 12.95.
“What it makes you realise is that anyone can achieve their dreams, whatever they are, whether it’s to compete in the Olympics like me, or to be a doctor, a lawyer, or even a zookeeper,” he told the assembled Leongatha Little Aths kids and their families at the Leongatha Recreation Reserve.
The kids listened intently, got to stand with Kyle beside the 106cm high hurdles, to talk to him and to take home a signed hat as a memento of the occasion.
For local kids, the idea of competing in the Olympics isn’t a pipedream after the heroics of one of their own Eleanor Paterson a few years ago.
The Patersons happened along athletics by accident, seeing the kids go around the Leongatha velodrome track on their way home from tennis one day and deciding it might be a fun thing to do.
As well as enjoying the competition and the camaraderie among the athletes, Kyle said he discovered how to have fun in the athletics scene which led him to winning 12 Australian championships, attend two Olympics (should have been three), world titles and Commonwealth Games.
And it all started at the Ringwood Little Aths, trying all the events, not really excelling, being a skinny little boy among the bigger kids but enjoying the hurdles right off the bat.
The visit was all part of the Coles Little Athletics ‘Big Dreams Inspire Young Athletes to Dream Big’ program featuring former Olympians.