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Wayde van Niekerk— ‘I know the route and direction...

DM168

ATHLETICS

Wayde van Niekerk— ‘I know the route and direction to get back to where I was’

Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa wins the men’s 400m final and sets a world record of 43.03 seconds the 2016 Rio Olympics. (Photo: Roger Sedres / Gallo Images)
By Craig Ray
17 Jul 2022 0

Wayde van Niekerk, the 400m world record holder, is not putting undue pressure on himself to win a medal at the World Champs.

The quiet confidence, even defiance, bubbles just under the mild surface that Wayde van Niekerk exudes. After nearly five injury-riddled years, the greatest athlete South Africa has ever produced prickles when it’s suggested his best years might have been lost on the physiotherapist’s table.

Van Niekerk, now 30, stunned the world with a jaw-dropping 400m world record time of 43.03 seconds in the final of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

From the archive: Wayde van Niekerk – The son of our soil whose story has come full circle

He did it running in lane eight, meaning he was blind to the competition for the entire race. Not that it mattered, because a world-class field, including London 2012 Olympic Champion Kirani James and Beijing 2008 winner LaShawn Merritt, didn’t come close. It was the fastest 400m final ever with the silver and bronze medallists coming in well under 44 seconds too.

Van Niekerk’s status as an all-time great was sealed that balmy night in Rio. A second straight World Championship gold followed in 2017, adding to his 2015 success. At 25, Van Niekerk’s ceiling, already higher than anyone else in history, was still unknown.

Fate intervenes

And then, in October 2017, playing a charity touch rugby match at Newlands, fate intervened. Van Niekerk tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus cartilage in his right leg in one moment. Since then, the struggle to recover those heady days from 2015 to 2017 has been unsuccessful.

For those of us on the outside of the Van Niekerk bubble, it has increasingly appeared that the best part of his stellar career is behind him. Van Niekerk disagrees.

“Was I seen as someone who was going to break the 400m world record?” Van Niekerk asked Daily Maverick rhetorically.

“I know the route and direction to get back to where I was. I had injuries before then [Rio 2016]. In fact, I still have some of the same injuries I had when I broke the record.

“The knee injury I picked up in 2017 is perfectly fine. I’ve been struggling with other injuries that plagued me before.

“I probably put too much energy and focus on one area and maybe neglected other areas. It’s about picking up the puzzle pieces and putting them back together.

“I mean, I was a world champion in 2015 and the camera couldn’t keep up with me in the final. Who’s to say when my golden years are done? I’ve proven to myself many times before that I’m capable of being the best. I know I’m the best, so it’s just about allowing my body to get back to its best,” he said.

World Championship chance?

So, does Van Niekerk, who ran a competitive 44.5sec in Atlanta a month ago, give himself a chance at the World Championships, which started at Nike’s track in Eugene, Oregon, on Friday, 15 July?

“Anything is possible,” Van Niekerk said. “It’s about getting through the rounds and getting into the final and then taking it from there.

“My aim is to get through the heats as efficiently as possible and give the best I’ve got at this moment and hopefully that is good enough to win a medal.”

From the archive: Wayde van Niekerk will be the greatest athlete South Africa’s ever produced

The task has been made a little easier because Tokyo 2020 Olympic champ Steven Gardiner has been ruled out with injury. Gardiner also won the 2019 World Champs in Doha.

The man from the Bahamas has a tendon injury and his absence certainly opens up the field. Gardiner, 26, has not lost a 400m race since 2017 – exactly when Van Niekerk’s world came crashing down. For the South African star, who has also run sub-10 seconds in the 100m and sub-20 seconds in the 200m, his goals stretch beyond Oregon.

“Winning a medal is always my goal, but I have to be patient and allow my body to go through the rounds respectfully and then see what comes my way,” Van Niekerk said.

“I’m capable of competing against the top guys. Physically I thought it would go my way [this year] but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. I’ve done one race so far, so it’s really just about getting momentum to carry forward this year and beyond.

“Last year in Tokyo, my mentality was about ‘killing it’ every time I got on to the track. But I was so up and down so I have to have a more progressive and gradual mentality. My last race was a 44.5sec and I believe that will get me into the 400m World Champs final.”

 Oregon and beyond

Reading between the lines, it appears that the 2022 World Championships have come a little too early for Van Niekerk to be sure of success.

He knows that at his best he can beat anyone, but seems a little unsure that his best will come in the next week.

Van Niekerk recently started training with other elite athletes at Clermont in Florida. The regime, techniques and focuses are all different, but it’s part of a plan that Van Niekerk hopes will come together at the Olympics in Paris 2024.

“My natural running ability can probably get me to something like 44.5 seconds, but to lower that to 43.5 seconds takes years and years of fine tuning and adjusting technique. My mentality has shifted from only trying to win races, to breaking records and improving myself … And obviously, to improve myself I will have to break records,” he said.

“The place to do that is at highlight competitions and Paris 2024 is the big one. It’s a very attractive place to do something like that. But I also want to get some little victories along the way, which includes the World Champs now and next year.

“I will use that as momentum for Paris because I’ve put in a lot of work, and will put in more work so I can challenge that world record again.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly DM168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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