Series14 Jan 2017

That moment when… Van Niekerk realised his potential


South African sprinter Wayde Van Niekerk (© Getty Images)

World and Olympic 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk is one of the world’s biggest track and field superstars. But back in 2010, he was just another teenage athlete in the early stages of his career development.

Here, in the first instalment of a new series on the IAAF website, Van Niekerk explains the importance of competing at the 2010 IAAF World U20 Championships and how it impacted on his career.


“Competing at the World U20 Championships in Moncton, Canada, opened my eyes to the possibility of what I could go on to achieve in track and field. I had been running for many years as a schoolboy, but 2010 was the first time I had qualified for a major championship. It was also the first time I’d travelled outside of South Africa and I was extremely excited. I left on my birthday and I recall flying to Dubai and then on to Canada and my 18th birthday seemed to last forever because of the different time zones. It was quite a funny and unique experience to have a birthday last for nearly two days!

“The first thing I noticed about Canada was the big cars and big trucks. It was an exciting experience to think I was in North America.

“To be honest, back then I had few expectations. I was just happy to wear the South African colours and make my family proud. It was only later in my career did I fully acknowledge the magnitude and responsibility that comes with running for your country.

“Back then my warm-ups consisted of a few stretches and then I was ready to run, yet some of my rivals were warming up for what seemed like hours with their own personal trainer stretching with them.

“My knowledge of athletics had been picked up by watching TV and I knew that the American and Jamaican athletes would dominate the sprints, so my whole mind-set was based on the fact I did not want to lose against the Americans and Jamaicans. I remember beating the American athlete in both the heats and semi-finals of the 200m and then I faced no American in the final. I had a very different mind-set back then to what I do today.

“The final just seemed like another race to me. I finished fourth in a PB of 21.02, just 0.02 behind Canada’s Aaron Brown, who took the bronze. To be honest, at the time it was not such a big deal that I had come so close to a medal. It was only later when people mentioned it that I realised how significant it was.

“After the race, people from US colleges came up to me and wanted to recruit me. It was very flattering, but my loyalty was staying and developing my career in South Africa, which I believe has been the right decision.

“Looking back on my World U20 experiences, it opened a massive door in my athletics career. Since then I’ve grown so much as an athlete and I have since gone from strength to strength. It proved a massive motivation and inspiration. It made me believe I had a God-given talent and that I had to nurture that talent in order to achieve great things.”

Steve Landells for the IAAF