Confident Wayde van Niekerk makes World Champs 400m final
Five years of injury and setbacks have plagued his career since the 2017 triumph in London, which included elimination at the semi-final stage at Tokyo 2020 (held in 2021). But the world record holder has just qualified for Friday’s 400m World Championship final in Eugene, Oregon.
If anyone was counting, and Wayde van Niekerk was, it has been 1,786 days – or close to five years – since the 400m world record holder made a major athletics final.
But in the early hours of Thursday morning, on the Hayward Field track in Oregon, Van Niekerk turned back the clock to make the 2022 world championship final.
It’s an event South Africa’s premier sprinter has won twice before – in 2015 and 2017. Between those triumphs he sandwiched in an Olympic gold in Rio 2016 in a world record time of 43.03 seconds.
Five years of injury and setbacks have plagued his career since the 2017 triumph in London, which included elimination at the semi-final stage at Tokyo 2020 (held in 2021).
For Van Niekerk, who told Daily Maverick last week, that he was confident of making the final, but also of improving as the year goes on, it’s vindication for the hard work he has put into his training base in Florida.
Van Niekerk finished second behind American Champion Allison in his semi-final, to book an automatic qualifying place in the final. Van Niekerk’s time of 44.75 seconds was modest by his own standards and was only the fifth fastest overall in the semis, but he appeared to be running within himself.
“It is the challenge of doing this 400 [metres] and not having as many races in [the] legs as I would love to have by now,” Van Niekerk said after the race.
“It is a learning process in every race. I am listening to my body and executing that way.”
Van Niekerk’s theme stated in his post-race comments were consistent with the message he gave to Daily Maverick last week. He spoke intimately about “listening” to his body and planning race strategy accordingly.
“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 told Daily Maverick last week.
“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 44.5-sec and I believe that will get me into the 400m World Champs final.”
As it turned out, 44.75 was enough. With two more competitive races behind him now, it will be interesting to see how quickly Van Niekerk can go in the final.
Taking home a medal against a quality field that includes the great Kirani James, who won his semi in 44.74 seconds, and the flying American Michael Norman (44.30 seconds in the semis) would be a considerable achievement for Van Niekerk.
Times are one thing, but in a world final there is pressure and Van Niekerk, despite his injury issues over the years, will step into the call room for Friday’s final with some intimidation factor. The others will look across and see the world record holder – the fastest person ever in their discipline – which will add to the pressure.
“Everyone knows what I’m capable of, including myself,” Van Niekerk said. “What happens if the one day you take me for granted is the one day everything comes together for me? I know that I’m respected and because of that it pushes me to break through barriers because they want to beat me.
“In the call room, you definitely suss out your opposition. You can clearly see who is in shape and who is not, and who is taking the moment too hard and who is a bit ‘lighter’. You can tell who is ready and who isn’t.
“I’ve been in call rooms enough times to know what’s going on and when I’m fit and ready, I love those moments of analysing my competitors just before the race.”
The men’s 400m final is at 4:35 SA time on Friday.
Jeruto claims steeplechase gold, Feng Bin wins women’s discus
Norah Jeruto set a World Championships record en route to winning the women’s 3,000 metres steeplechase gold while China’s Feng Bin outdid Olympic champion Valerie Allman in the discus final.
Jeruto, who switched allegiance from Kenya to Kazakhstan earlier this year, clocked eight minutes, 53.02 seconds, the third-fastest time ever and more than five seconds better than previous winner Beatrice Chepkoech’s mark in Doha in 2019.
Werkuha Getachew set an Ethiopian record for silver, while her compatriot Mekides Abebe took bronze.
“At the starting line, I was afraid of my friends from Ethiopia,” Jeruto said of her competitors. “They are also champions like me so I was scared of them. I tried my best to win the race and it was not easy.”
In the women’s discus final, Feng’s 69.12-metres opener, a personal best, was enough to secure her victory as Croatia’s Sandra Perković took silver and American Allman finished with bronze. Reigning champion Yaime Perez ended in seventh place.
“I am so excited and I have to say all opponents did a very good job today,” said Feng, who finished 17th in Tokyo last year. “I did not expect this result coming to Eugene, I just wanted to show my best.”
Earlier on Wednesday, record-holder Sydney McLaughlin and fellow American Dalilah Muhammad set up a highly anticipated showdown in the women’s 400 metres hurdles final, after winning their respective heats.
McLaughlin broke Muhammad’s world record and ended her Olympic title defence last year, and in Friday’s final takes aim the last jewel in her crown: the World Championship.
The 22-year-old showed she was spoiling for a fight at Hayward Field on Wednesday, claiming the lead before she had cleared the final turn, slowing through the final straight with plenty left in the tank to win in 52.17 seconds, more than one-and-a-half seconds ahead of Gianna Woodruff of Panama.
Fans are hopeful they could see McLaughlin make magic in Friday’s final on the Hayward Field track where she has twice broken the world record and made the extraordinary seem almost routine.
Two more Americans, Shamier Little and Britton Wilson, also advanced.
The Netherlands’ Femke Bol, the Tokyo bronze medallist who produced an extraordinary effort to help collect silver in the 4×400 metres mixed relay on Friday, won her race in 52.84 to reach her first world final. DM
(Additional reporting by Reuters)