Wayde van Niekerk set a legendary 400m world record from lane eight at the Rio Olympics. SPIKES has the inside story on one of track's most exciting athletes.
“I have never seen anything like that,” was Michael Johnson’s reaction as Wayde van Niekerk crossed the finish line in 43.03 to shave 0.15 off his 17-year-old world record to take Olympic gold.
“That was a massacre. This young man has done something truly special. He could go under 43 seconds – I tried and failed.” These are big words coming from a man like Johnson. But he is right.
Van Niekerk’s performance in Rio was nothing short of extraordinary. Within the space of 43 seconds, the 24-year-old’s life changed forever.
Let's fly back to November 2015. Van Niekerk is in London for an adidas shoot and with a few hours spare in the English capital, he wants to take in some of London’s sights. We offered to take him and his stepdad Steven Swarts on a quick tour.
There is no designated car to take the 2015 world champion from A to B, no special treatment. Just the good old London Underground and a low-key one-day travel card.
As avid football fans, the pair had Wembley on top of their list of sites to visit. We join a tour of about 20 ten-year-old local school kids. Van Niekerk is almost as excited about entering the dressing rooms as they are and patiently waits in line to have his photo taken with his hero Steven Gerrard’s kit.
"Quick dad, take a photo!"
In the press conference room the tour guide turns to us: “You guys should have your photos at the top table taken first.” While taking pictures of van Niekerk and Swarts she continues: “Now imagine this room you are looking at was full of journalists throwing questions at you.”
“Just imagine,” whispers van Niekerk. The three of us chuckle.
After his world championship gold in Beijing last summer he says the increased attention “is something I need to learn to get used to.” Little did he know it would rocket to unimaginable heights nine months later.
As we continue the stadium tour one of the accompanying teachers quietly asks “why do I recognise this guy’s face?”
“He’s the 400m world champion,” Swarts says casually. The teacher’s face drops.
Within minutes he has assembled his hoard of students around van Niekerk, who poses for photos, embarrassed to steal Wembley’s thunder. Swarts, beaming with pride, hands out some autographs he has tucked in his rucksack, while van Niekerk occasionally gives him the odd ‘dad, you really don’t have to look’.
He leads the school kids out on the pitch, but as soon as the FA Cup is being presented, he quickly becomes one of them again and is first in line to take a photo with the trophy.
One of the kids: van Niekerk during a tour of Wembley.
After Wembley as we sit down for lunch he looks towards 2016 and Rio: “I still keep my priorities the same. It worked, so why change it?
“The best part of being an athlete is that you get to travel the world. Hopefully next year I can contribute to bringing my family over to Rio, so they can experience this life.”
Fast forward to August this year and he has kept his promise. As he completed his historic feat in the Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange, ten of his nearest and dearest were in the stands, falling into each other’s arms, crying with joy.
“This is our journey, if I can include them, then this is everything to me,” he said of having them there for this special moment.
“After the race all the athletes went out to celebrate together, but Wayde came back to the hotel with his family,” Swarts recalled. “We were up until the next morning, talking, drinking coffee. That family time after the race was priceless.”
Family first: Family and girlfriend Chesney celebrate van Niekerk
His family-orientated approach extends into his training life. Coach Anna Sophia Botha is more like a mother to him than a coach. After it took her over an hour to fight her way to van Niekerk because stewards couldn’t believe the 75-year-old was a world record breaker’s coach, the pair reunited in tears.
“We just hugged each other,” Botha said. “It wasn’t necessary to say anything.”
They knew what they had achieved. And Botha saw it coming. “At 300 meters,” she recalled, “he was faster than what we had planned for.”
What elevated van Niekerk to newspaper frontpages around the world and earned him global fame wasn’t just the win or the world record, it was the fashion in which he ran the race. He was in lane 8. No major champs has been won from the outside lane before. But as Botha simply put it, in the end it doesn’t matter in which lane you run “because every lane is the same distance”.
That distance is still proving the biggest challenge for van Niekerk. But while he admits that he’s “not really a big fan of the 400m”, his mantra has helped him cope with the demands of the event.
“I believe that nothing should be easy,” he explains.
Bolt: "I told him in Jamaica he'll break the world record."
For now the 400m are his focus, but he has unfinished business over the shorter sprint distances. In March he became the first man to clock sub-10 for 100m, sub-20 for 200m and sub-44 for 400m and that was before his month-long training stint in Jamaica with Usain Bolt and coach Mills in June.
The international media was going wild for the pair’s joint celebration in Rio. With Bolt looking to retire after the 2017 World Championships in London, van Niekerk could be the one to follow in the nine-time Olympic champion's footsteps. But unlike showmaker Bolt, van Niekerk still holds on to his quiet demeanour.
“I’ve never been someone who was always in the limelight or the centre of attention,” he says shyly.
His ambition for the coming seasons is straight forward: “It’s all about consistency and growth. If I am talking about consistency it means repeating what I have achieved so far. And growth is about improving my times.”
Wayde van Niekerk is one of three 2016 World Athlete of the Year finalists, which will be announced live on stage at the IAAF Athletics Awards 2016 in Monaco on Friday 2 December.