Wayde van Niekerk
A sensational 43.96 in Paris last week saw Wayde van Niekerk become one of only a dozen men in history to run 400m in sub-44. The South African gives us ten reasons he was able to join that elite club.
1. The genes fit
Mum, dad and step-father (okay, we realise these are not genes) have all played their part in equipping Wayde van Niekerk with a very special athletic ability.
His mum, Odessa, was a former national standard sprinter and 1.80m high jumper. His father, Wayne (yes, that’s right, Wayne and Wayde) was a 2m high jumper.
Step-dad Steven is an ex-distance runner who coached Wayde during the early stages of his career. The 400m national record holder says Steven in particular was “a big influence” on his development.
Van Niekerk Jnr was himself a useful high jumper in his younger days. “If I remember correctly, I jumped 2.06m as a junior,” he tells SPIKES.
2. Kickaround kid
It took some time for van Niekerk to discover athletics. He played rugby as a winger and full back, but his main passion was football. He is a loyal follower of Liverpool FC (just like KJT), the most decorated club in the history of British football, and still enjoys a kickabout today.
He has so far managed to avoid the fate that befell world no.1 golfer Rory McIlroy. Indeed, the 22-year-old believes that playing the game has been a major benefit, and helped him to hone his competitive nature.
3. Appetite: whetted
It was at the 2010 World Junior Championships in Moncton – where he finished fourth in the 200m final just 0.02 shy of a bronze medal position – when van Niekerk says he first arrived. He learned what the world of track and field is all about and became smitten with wearing the Springbok colours.
“It was the first time I represented my country and, for me, it was simply about going out and running,” he explains. “I was quite raw and didn’t know much about the sport.
“I was really caught by surprise when a big company like adidas approached me. I was amazed that someone wanted to invest in me.”
The lactic kills #400m pic.twitter.com/4q62wV2lmQ— Wayde van Niekerk (@WaydeDreamer) May 18, 2014
4. Find your event
A 200m specialist in his early years, van Niekerk struggled with persistent hamstring injuries until his coach, Anna Sophia Botha, decided to ease the pressure on that area by focusing more on the 400m to “improve endurance and recovery training”.
He surprised himself by running 45.09 that season in Ostrava. Last year, he blitzed to the South African record with 44.38 in New York. He says he made the move permanent as “I didn’t have a choice anymore”.
5. Ready to explode
With Cobus Calldo, a new strength and conditioning coach was introduced during the winter at his training base in Bloemfontein and has made a huge difference out of the blocks.
Rather than focusing on lifting heavy weights, van Niekerk now works with a machine that helps improve “movement”. This, he believes, has played a key role in his rich vein of form. “It has definitely allowed me to improve my explosiveness,” he adds.
6. Coach trip
Any great athlete needs a great coach, and in Anna Sophia Botha, with whom the rising one-lap star has been working since early 2013, he believes he has found the perfect foil.
The septuagenarian coach has vast knowledge and experience, and has taken on a “motherly and protective role” according to van Niekerk.
Most importantly the pair just gel: “I just think our personalities handle one another quite well.”
Yet there is no room for nonsense.
“She’s very strict and whenever we [in the training group] are feeling lazy, she’ll put us back on track straight away.” Quite right, too.
That historic performance in Paris
7. Drag and torture
Coming from a 200m background, van Niekerk admits he dislikes endurance work. Yet killer sessions and reps of 800m and 1000m have proved vital for his improvement in 2015, though he describes them as “a drag and torture”.
“Running an 800m might take me two minutes, but it is then reassuring to know I’ll only need to run for 43 or 44 seconds for a 400m,” he explains. “I know the training is going to help me for my 400m. As well as the physical benefits of this type of training, it has helped my mindset too.”
8. “Tactical tinkering”
Before this year, van Niekerk knew only one way to run the 400m.
“I was an explosive starter out of the blocks and I would want to be first to 100m, 200m, 300m and 400m,” he admits.
The one flaw in this tactic was the steady death that nailed him on the home straight. This season – while not tempering his naturally aggressive style too much – he has taken on a marginally more conservative approach. It is paying dividends.
“I’m starting races more composed, and this is allowing me to feel more comfortable in the final 100m,” adds van Niekerk. It shows as he holds the African 300m record of 31.63, and set a 400m Africa record of 43.96 in Paris (only for Isaac Makwala to break it a few hours later in Switzerland).
9. National movement
As a proud and patriotic South African, van Niekerk says he gets a genuine thrill from a rise in the quality of athletics performances from his country. Whether that is the 400m hurdling exploits of Wenda Nel and Cornel Fredericks, or the 200m sprinting of world champs and Olympic finalist Anaso Jobadwana, competitors from the Cape are really making a mark on the global scene.
“A movement is really happening in South Africa and I’m grateful to be part of that,” he explains. “We are breaking the chain and removing the limits we have set on ourselves as a country.
“I hope to inspire other South Africans to not only start supporting, but participating as well. It is something I’m looking forward to and I’m excited for.”
10. Poker race
Van Niekerk has recently started playing regular games of poker. He says it has taught him a quality which he has successfully transferred to the track: “I’d say patience,.”
“The game of poker is not just about gambling, but being patient and waiting for that moment.
“I wouldn’t say I’m there yet, but it is definitely getting better. In athletics, I’ve definitely accepted the importance of being patient.”