During 2014 Wayde van Niekerk emerged into one of the world’s finest 400m runners. But as SPIKES discovers, the South African record holder only discovered the one-lap event for himself largely by accident.

It is probably fair to say Wayde van Niekerk’s relationship with the 400m is a marriage of convenience.

How so?

Well, up until last year the South African was a promising 200m sprinter. An athlete tipped as a future star after finishing fourth in the half-lap event on his international debut at the 2010 World Junior Championships in Canada, and who blitzed to a 20.57 clocking to land the national 200m title in 2011.

Yet, for the following two seasons he was bedevilled by persistent hamstring injuries. So in 2013 his coach, Anna Sophia Botha, decided to ease the pressure on the hamstrings over the explosive distance of 200m to focus more on the 400m as a means to “improve endurance and recovery training”.

Up until that point, van Niekerk had dabbled with the 400m – his personal best set in 2012 was a respectable 46.43 – but 2013 went surprisingly well. He slashed his 400m personal best by almost 1.5 seconds down to 45.09 in Ostrava, to finish the season inside the world’s top 20.

 

Wayde van Niekerk SPIKES ()

 

Successful transition from 200m to 400m sprinter

“At the beginning of 2013 I was still hoping to compete as a 200m runner,” he explains. “Then after my performances last year I didn’t have a choice anymore. I had to do 400m. It was a big surprise, as I didn’t expect to run that quickly.

“I was raw at the event and still in the rehab phase from the injuries. I was surprised, but it was also a relief as well because it showed me I was stronger and finally over the injuries.”

He started the 2013-2014 winter campaign – his first for several seasons free of injury – fully focused on 400m training and the results followed.

He dipped below 45 seconds for the first time with a 44.92 clocking to secure the South African title. In May he claimed a confidence boosting win in Hengelo – defeating the Olympic silver medallist Luguelin Santos and recently crowned European champion Martyn Rooney – in the process.

Yet, it was his 44.38 performance at the New York Diamond League in June, where van Niekerk shattered the 15-year-old South African record with 44.38, finished within 0.19 of world champion LaShawn Merritt and first came to international prominence.

 

Wayde van Niekerk SPIKES ()

 

To top off a successful season, he managed to hold off Martyn Rooney for victory in the 4x400m at the Continental Cup

It was some performance by the inexperienced 400m runner. In the minutes that immediately followed the race, it led to an unusual meeting with his athletics idol, Felix Sanchez.

The story of the 400m hurdler returning from long-term injury to regain the Olympic 400m hurdles title at the London Games struck a chord with the modest South African. But it probably wasn’t the moment or circumstance in which he would have imagined meeting his idol for the first time.

“I was actually laying on the floor throwing up when he came up to me and congratulated me on my run,” he says laughing at the memory. “Even though I felt like I was dying, it was a special moment for me. He even advised me on how I should handle such a thing!”

Since then, van Niekerk has proved himself on the championship stage: across a memorable two-week period this summer, the 22-year-old part-time marketing student won Commonwealth and African 400m silver medals – the former behind Olympic champion Kirani James.

But how did he manage to step up in an event, which is so highly contested and so gruelling at the same time?

It was all down to focusing on greater endurance work. Van Niekerk struggled with fatigue through the back end of 2013 and failed to progress out of the 400m heats at the Moscow world championships after a long five-month season. Implementing serious gym work for the first time in his career has played dividends. 

“The work I did helped condition me for the long, hard season and being able to handle three rounds in a championship,” he explains. “It was the first time I’ve done specific gym work. I have a personal trainer in the gym and the balance is finally starting to come together,” he admits.

 

Wayde van Niekerk SPIKES ()

 

Not done yet: van Niekerk also competed in the 200m at the Glasgow Games

At the Commonwealth Games things definitely came together for him. He ran 44.68 – the second fastest time of his career – for silver behind James. Yet, his physical post-race reaction remained consistent, proving there is still room for improvement.

“The same thing [as in New York] happened to me in Glasgow in that I took a while to recover and get used to the feeling [of severe fatigue],” he explains.

“I managed to grab a flag and get a few pictures with some of the guys who supported me, but I don’t think I even went on a victory lap. After about ten minutes or so I had to suck it up, because I had quite a few interviews waiting for me.”

Despite his success in the 400m, he has not quite shaken the 200m off his system. In July he ran a 200m PB of 20.19 in Lausanne – a mark which ranks him joint 18th in the world for 2014.

The 200m remain on his radar, and he adds: “I know the 400m is the event I need to focus on in future, but I can’t quite leave the 200m. Whatever happens I’m open for both the 200m and 400m.”