“I can tell you that we’ve had them all in my office doing special neck-strengthening exercises … “ she said … “because I’m honestly worried about how they’re going to cope with all those medals around their necks!”
It was a moment of humour that is typical of the Paralympics squad. The people who have the most to be unhappy about are some of the most joyous, inspiring people around, and “the pressure of expectation” seems to be a totally foreign concept for those for whom just playing sport is a major achievement.
But Hughes is right, South Africa are in line for plenty of medals at the Paralympics, which start in London on August 29.
South Africa’s 66 competitors won 30 medals in Beijing in 2008, 21 of them gold, to finish sixth in the final standings and will be looking to improve on that in London.
“I think 40 medals is possible, but our main aim is to maintain or improve on our sixth place overall in Beijing,” Sascoc CEO Tubby Reddy says.
Some of the greatest Paralympians of all time – most notably Oscar Pistorius and Natalie du Toit – are in Team South Africa and there will be a steward’s inquiry if they don’t come home with at least a couple of gold medals.
Seventeen-year-old Marike Naude is a rising star in the world of swimming and is competing in six events. There are high hopes for her, especially since she could be re-classified in London into an easier disability group.
Charles Bouwer is going to his third Paralympics and is also going to swim in six events, while looking to repeat his performance in the 2010 world championships, when he won silver in the 400m freestyle.
“I started in Athens when I was a 14-year-old and I thought I would stop in Beijing, so it’s unbelievable to be going to a third Paralympics,” Bouwer says.
The visually-impaired 22-year-old went to Pescara in Italy to train with the able-bodied Olympic swimmers and is clearly not one to back down from competition.
“Swimming six events in the S13 class, there’s going to be a lot of competition. But why go to an event and just win everything? It’s great to have the challenge,” Bouwer says.
Other swimmers to keep an eye on are the versatile Hendrick Herbst, 100m breaststroke veteran Tadgh Slattery, competing in an astonishing sixth Paralympics, Beijing world record setter Kevin Paul and Shireen Sapiro, who won gold in the 100m backstroke in Beijing.
Pistorius, given the fact that he is one of the top 16 400 metre runners in the world, should murder the opposition in the one-lap race, but he will have strong competition in the 100, 200 and 800 metre races.
Other hot athletics medal contenders are Dyan Buis, Hilton Langenhoven, who burst on the scene so spectacularly in 2008 with three gold medals, sprinters Fanie van der Merwe, Arnu Fourie and Teboho Mokgalagadi , Ilse Hayes (100m & long jump) and experienced javelin thrower Zanele Situ.
“The bulk of our medals tend to come from athletics and swimming and everybody who has been selected in the team has medal potential. It’s a very difficult team to get into,” Chef de Mission Pieter Badenhorst says.
“But in terms of new stars after Beijing, we have high hopes for Dian Buys, who is the world record-holder in the long jump, and Teboho Mokgalagadi.
“It’s notoriously difficult to predict how many medals we’ll get and the medals table is so congested and that one gold can make the difference between finishing fifth and 13th. Russia and Brazil have invested quite a lot now in their Paralympians and it will be hard to predict how they’ll do. But we have prepared as best we can,” the 1992 gold medallist in the 400m sprint says.
Team South Africa are also hoping for some medals from the other “smaller” sports they are competing in – cycling, equestrian, rowing, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis.
Cycling, with world champion Ernst van Dyk leading the way, and equestrian sports, featuring double gold-winner Philippa Johnson, are genuine medal hopes, while South Africa’s top wheelchair tennis player, KG Montjane, is in the top 10 of the world rankings.
South Africans are only just starting to fully embrace the Olympics after all those years of isolation, and it might yet take a while for the Paralympians to be fully appreciated.
But sports minister Fikile Mbalula has the right idea.
“Our Paralympians have led from the front and have never disappointed us. I stand here ashamed that the country has never given you the rightful credit.
“So bring that gold back that was stolen from our motherland. I don’t know if we’re going to nationalise it, but we want it back,” Mbalulu told the Paralympics farewell banquet in Sandton.
Cameron van der Burgh said the Olympic athletes “should take notes” from their disabled compatriots for the many challenges they overcome just to have the opportunities the able-bodied sportspeople take for granted.
The gold-winning swimmer said his most inspirational moment of the Olympics was seeing Pistorius get more applause than Usain Bolt; but Mbalulu may have been just a little over-enthusiastic when he described the Blade Runner as “the greatest human on earth”.
That’s what the Paralympics are about: sportsmen and women overcoming the stiffest of challenges just to compete on the biggest stage. The medals are a bonus, but something South Africans can certainly expect.