How Olympic canoe sprinting kings Tom Green and Jean van der Westhuyzen triumphed over trauma and loss

Thomas Green said he could see how Australia meant to Jean van der Westhuyzen at the medal ceremony Griffiths/Getty Images

Tom Green and Jean van der Westhuyzen became overnight heroes in Australia when they claimed a shock gold medal in the K2 1000m Olympic canoe sprint. Both 22, they have risen to the top of their sport early in their respective careers. However, both have had to overcome adversity on their way to the top.

Their struggles were starkly contrasting in nature. Van der Westhuyzen grew up in an obscure, but idyllic region of South Africa's Cape Winelands. Life was good, but his chances of emerging as an Olympic gold medallist from that region were next to none. Had he not made the brave decision to migrate to Australia in 2018 and passed a citizenship test the following year, it would have been all but impossible.

Queensland-born Green is an Aussie to the bones, but he by no means had a clear path to the top. Raised in a single-parent household after his mother left his father out of concern for the safety of he and his two siblings, Green had to constantly struggle to scrape funds together to compete.

"It was quite a bad situation. My mum left my father because it was an abusive relationship -- as, I guess, is unfortunately kind of normal. She left for our protection and our safety. When she realised that my siblings were getting quite affected by it, she said: 'No, that's it -- I'm going to keep you guys safe,'" Green told ESPN.

"That's what she did. She's protected us and raised us herself. She's an awesome woman and a powerful woman and I can't thank her enough, honestly. She's definitely protected me a lot and sheltered me from a lot of the stuff that comes from that.

"There are things that I will obviously never forget and things that I'll take with me for the rest of my life due to that. I think it's just helped build me and build the relationship I have with my family -- my brother, my sister and my mum."

Green's mother worked for the NSW Police Force, but had to quit after diving in front of a bus to save a woman, suffering a back injury in the process.

She now works for the Public Guard, helping children in foster care. Her experience in that job, combined with Green's own experience of life in a household with a single breadwinner, inspired mother and son to collaborate in launching Gifted, a charity which aims to improve access to education in foster care homes, including by providing access to tablets, iPads and laptops.

The impact this has had on his sprinting partner, van der Westhuyzen, is clear to see, as the South African-born star's first association with his adopted country, Australia, is what he describes as "camaraderie".

"Straight after [high school at] Michaelhouse [in KwaZulu-Natal], I moved to the Gold Coast, which is situated in Queensland. I joined the elite sporting programme at Bond University. About a year after that, once I made my first national team, I got a Queensland Academy of Sport scholarship. It all started from there, really," van der Westhuyzen recalled. By 2020, his parents and two younger brothers had followed him.

"I wanted to move for a better life. I wanted to move for education, as well as train with some of the best athletes in the world. I think [my family] were always going to come over, but just at a later stage.

"I think Aussies are such a proud nation. They absolutely love their sport and they get behind their people and they're super supportive of each other. I just love the camaraderie and support that Australians give each other. When one man is down, we help each other out. I think that's kind of shown in the Australian Olympic team as well. We really came together and supported each other regardless of the results."

Van der Westhuyzen met Green at a kayak shed at university and the pair struck a bond. They rejoiced together after van der Westhuyzen passed his citizenship test and Green has witnessed firsthand how Australia has grown upon his sprinting partner.

"It's really cool to see him love the country so purely. He loves Australia to the bottom of his heart. Obviously, South Africa is where he grew up and he's also had so many great achievements and memories from there -- and things that he's also taught me that I wouldn't have learned otherwise," said Green.

"Australia has definitely, from my perspective, had a huge impact on his life -- and a positive one at that. He's like a patriot at heart -- he bleeds red and blue. It was so awesome to share that with him, because he was looking up at the flag and he was crying and he was singing the anthem. It was such a proud moment.

"Obviously, in the last two or three years, Australia has tried to do as much as it could for him and tried to make it as much like home [as possible]. I guess the greatest thing about it is how open it is and how homely it can be."

Not all have had the same experience as van der Westhuyzen -- New Zealand-born rugby union legend Quade Cooper was infamously denied the chance to compete at the 2016 Olympics due to being unable to acquire Aussie citizenship. However, there is no doubt that Australia and van der Westhuyzen have served each other well.

Had he remained in South Africa, where he previously became the first male canoeist from his country to win a medal at the Junior Canoe Marathon World Championships in 2016, he almost certainly could not have won gold in Tokyo.

Fortunately, he had an example to follow in Murray Stewart, a Durban-born canoe sprinter who was a hero to him and later became a teammate. David Smith and Ken Wallace, both past Olympic gold medallists, served as mentors to Green and van der Westhuyzen -- with Smith and Jimmy Owens their official coaches.

"As a youngster, I absolutely loved the older guys like Kenny, Murray, and the guys who won K4 [gold] in London. One of them is David Smith, who is actually my coach now. It was super special watching my idols and now being coached by one of them," said van der Westhuyzen.

"It's quite surreal for me. I've been watching the older guys since I was a very, very young boy. I would spend hours on the computer trying to watch their races. It's awesome to be able to compete with these guys.

"Kenny Wallace -- I have a great relationship with him. I have a great relationship with Murray -- he's my teammate. They're both great guys. Obviously, with my coaches, I probably have the closest relationships -- David Smith and Jimmy Owens. They've just guided me so much and backed me the whole way. They're like a dad, brother and friend all in one."

Van der Westhuyzen and Green beat another of their heroes, Germany's Max Hoff, to the gold medal, but he has been gracious in defeat and even shared advice.

With the scale of their achievement yet to fully sink in, both van der Westhuyzen and Green will soon return to normal life.

Van der Westhuyzen works as an analyst for fund management company Skybound Fidelis, while Green is a lifeguard. Their jobs could hardly be more different, but they have both been offered support while chasing their Olympic dreams.

"They've allowed me to have that work and sporting balance. They've enabled me to train pretty much to my 100% potential in the sense that I could work from home, which has played a huge role," said van der Westhuyzen of Skybound Fidelis.

Meanwhile, when asked if he was going to return to work as a lifeguard, a beaming Green said: "Yeah probably. Gold Coast City Council have helped me out quite a bit -- especially the Lifeguard Services. They've tried to be as flexible as they could with me and they've definitely helped me have a life outside of sport as well as a life inside it.

"I couldn't imagine any better job than being able to be down at the beach for six-plus hours a day, trying to keep people safe."

The K2 1000m race will no longer be at the Olympics in Paris 2024, with the 500m taking its place. Green and van der Westhuyzen will have to adapt to new challenges -- a task which both are relishing.

For now, there is at least a little bit of time to pause and reflect on the improbable journeys which saw them each confront their own challenges and eventually cross paths, as well as the near impossible final leap to the top step of the Tokyo Olympics podium.