By HERMAN GIBBS – Cape Town
The world’s fourth fastest ever 400-metre sprinter, South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk, is about to launch his bid for gold at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
His object of desire will be the Olympic gold medal rather than the three-hundredths of a second that sets his personal best of 43.48 seconds apart from the world record of 43.18 held by American icon Michael Johnson.
“I believe that the world record is really not important to me at this moment as I want to write my own story as best as possible,” Van Niekerk said in an interview. “The world record is actually Michael Johnson’s story. I still have to write my story and if that means in my book I will have to write down a new world record then I will really be grateful.”
Van Niekerk has taken a month’s break and training will start in earnest at the start of November.
“I’ve got about a month off now, but I’ll start at the beginning of November training full out with the focus on Rio,” said Van Niekerk, who shot into international prominence when he showed hot favourites LaShawn Merritt (USA) and Grenadian Kirani James a clean pair of heels to claim the 400m gold medal at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing in August.
Van Niekerk reflected on his career highlight which has made him one of the world’s foremost track athletes.
“Race day itself was really stressful for me because I was running against world-class athletes wherever I looked (on the starting line). I saw world leaders (the season’s best), defending Olympic champions and defending world champions. I saw guys currently running faster times than me,” Van Niekerk recalled.
“I ran 43.93 secs in the heats and there were guys wanting to run the 43s as well. I knew that there was the potential of running a 43sec race – 43 means I have to go 43 in the final just to obtain a medal. Over the first 100m, I was quite nervous and numb because I was feeling weak. You know the ‘weak’ feeling you get when the nerves are there? As I opened up near towards the end of the first 100m, I was feeling good and positive. It was then that I decided to leave the rest (of the field) behind me.
“I went as hard as possible not thinking of lactic acid, or what was going to hold me back, over the last 100m.
“I think over the last 30-40m I started feeling the gold coming, but I knew it wasn’t sealed yet simply because I’m running against the world’s best – Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt. It is then that I said to myself: ‘Push, push, push to the finish line’.
“When I got over the finish line I didn’t care about times. I didn’t care about anything – I just wanted to stand up and not sit down and allow lactic acid to spoil my celebration.”
Moments after Van Niekerk’s perfectly-timed gold medal race, he was stretchered off the track after being overcome with exhaustion.
“The first thing I did was thank the supporters that were there for me and at the same time use that as a mechanism to keep me up and not sit down. As I walked towards the media I saw the media stand was quite high up and I have to go there. I made a wrong choice by sitting down – that’s where my celebration ended (laughs).”
The 10-week break from athletics has restored a sense of normality to Van Niekerk’s life as he was able to enjoy what has always been fundamental in his life.
“Well, I’m not a big fan of big parties so to me it is very important that I spend time with my family, catch up, getting to hear their personal experiences and what emotions they went through,” said Van Niekerk. That was the main thing that brought joy to me when I got back home, just knowing that they had the opportunity to share their experiences with me.
“I just wanted to get back home and catch up, basically get my life back to normal as soon as possible.”
Van Niekerk also has to cope with the delicate balancing act of studying marketing at the University of the Free State and spending time with the family.
“It is quite difficult, I won’t lie. After hours you have to sit down and stay with the strict goals that I’ve set,” said Van Niekerk.
“During the day I will try and work while the day is fresh. Luckily, the university’s lecturers are quite lenient with me and they are willing to help. Their support means a lot to me. It helps my athletics and then I also get great support from my family.
“They give me the space to study and motivate me. Every now and again, mom will say: ‘Wayde go sit with your books’.
“It’s the same with my girlfriend. She’s always willing to help. I really appreciate the holistic support and I can truly say I have a sound support structure.”
What happens now?
“I’m a firm believer in my coach (Anna ‘Tannie Ans’ Botha) and she knows what she is doing. She brought me this far. She’s been the backbone for me as an athlete and I trust her. I leave it all in her hands,” said Van Niekerk.
“She’ll map the way forward. Whatever happens, happens. I’m not really too phased about how we get there, as long as we get there.
“I’ve been quite consistent this year (2015) and I just want to follow through next year. Olympics is big and but every competition ahead is important. One needs to stay focused in every race. I’m just going to try and take it as it comes and hopefully things will work out as it did this year.
“I’m just going to leave it in God’s hands again.”
Look out for Van Niekerk when the men’s 400m athletes line-up at the Rio 2016 Olympics in August next year.