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It's graduation day for top student VanDyk

He's at next level after acing test

By Bob Monahan, Globe Staff, 4/17/2001

rnst VanDyk did his homework well.

For the past seven years, the muscular South African watched the top wheelchair marathoners, noting the strong points of those he considered the best in the sport. As he trained, he tried to incorporate these techniques and strategies into his racing style.

Yesterday, he was rewarded for his research and development work with a laurel wreath.

VanDyk pulled ahead early and rolled to victory in the Boston Marathon men's wheelchair race, crossing the finish line in 1 hour 25 minutes 12 seconds - more than six minutes ahead of four-time defending champion Franz Nietlispach (1:31:22) and two-time winner Heinz Frei (1:31:58), both of Switzerland, and Saul Mendoza (1:32:05), a Mexican who lives in Warm Springs, Ga.

Those three were among the racers VanDyk had been studying.

''To me, Saul Mendoza is the best climber. I studied him,'' said VanDyk. ''And Franz is the best downhill racer. And Heinz is the best flat racer. I just copied all three and worked hard. That's how I won.''

VanDyk raced in Boston two years ago, finishing seventh in 1:29:51. ''I told myself then I hated this race and didn't want any part of it again,'' he said. ''Now I love it. I'll be back next year.''

He showed his confidence and power right from the start. With his 18-inch neck and broad shoulders, VanDyk looked like an NFL tight end on a mission. He led from the get-go, working in synch with his new 17-pound wheelchair as if they were parts in a Swiss watch.

VanDyk's lead was more than 5 minutes after 35 kilometers (21.75 miles), and by the 40K checkpoint he was ahead by more than 6 minutes.

''I knew I was ahead pretty good,'' said VanDyk, who has been without the use of his legs since birth. ''I was ahead but I was scared. I thought Franz would come up fast on me. I wasn't really relaxed until the very end.''

It was too much ground for Nietlispach to make up.

''Ernst raced very well and I'm very glad for him,'' said Nietlispach, who took home second-place money of $5,000 - half of VanDyk's prize. ''He's a good person who worked hard for this race. I did offer him advice over the years, and he took it.''

Nietlispach, 43, who had won five of the previous six years in Boston, finished nearly 10 minutes off his personal best.

''At my age, I will not be improving as a racer from a physical point of view,'' he said. ''The only way I can improve is by getting better equipment.''

He thought the headwinds cost him 5-8 minutes.

It took a while for the victory to settle in for VanDyk. He cried when he was crowned with the laurel wreath and handed his trophy. Then he sat at the interview table in awe.

''When I sat for the interviews, I really appreciated everything more,'' he said. ''There I was at the interview table with Franz and Heinz, two of the world's greatest marathon racers, and I had defeated them. That's a great feeling.

''What's even greater is that both gave me confidence and advice over the years.''

VanDyk was at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, in Atlanta in 1996, and in Sydney in 2000. He watched the best in his sport, and something apparently rubbed off.

''If you watch the best and try to do as they do, you will get better in your event,'' said VanDyk. ''I started sports as a swimmer when I was very small. I learned how to compete.''

Nietlispach was asked if VanDyk owed him anything for his advice. ''Ernst earned the win,'' he said. ''He owes me nothing. We're friends.''

This story ran on page G10 of the Boston Globe on 4/17/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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