It takes confidence to break a world record. In the latest episode of IAAF Inside Athletics, South Africa’s 400m world record holder Wayde van Niekerk tells Ato Boldon how he managed to unlock his potential.
When Wayde van Niekerk crossed the finish line of the 400m final at the Rio Olympics in a world record 43.03, he was in shock. At the same time, down in the tunnels below the stadium getting ready for the 100m final was Usain Bolt watching van Niekerk carefully. The Jamaican later he claimed: “I told him in Jamaica he'll break the world record.”
Van Niekerk had joined Bolt’s training group under coach Mills a couple of months prior to Rio for a short training stint and admits the experience was an eye opener for him.
“I think we’re all expecting some kind of Mekka or kingdom to enter when you get to Jamaica,” van Niekerk tells Boldon. “But you really just get to realise that these are guys just like each and every one of us.
“I think it really opened a massive door for myself mentally, because where I come from, South Africa, you always think that the United States, or Jamaica, or Europe is really where you need to make it, is where you can start breaking barriers. And that’s become kind of a habit in South Africa; once you finish school you go over to the USA.
“I always had something deep inside of me, just telling me ‘you can do it right here, in South Africa and inspire more and more South Africans to do it’.”
After a short while on the island, the Caribbean confidence “slowly but surely started rubbing off” on the modest van Niekerk.
“Obviously you gain so much confidence training amongst these guys,” he says. “You’re actually expecting them to be miles away from you but before you know it, you might be ahead of someone or you might be alongside the guys. All of a sudden your mindset changes and you think ‘but why not believe in even greater things for yourself?’”
Just two months later he went on to those greater things when he broke Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record in spectacular fashion from the outside lane. His coach, Anna Botha, at the time wisely remarked the lane doesn’t matter, it’s all the same distance. Van Niekerk even describes the lane draw as “a blessing in disguise”.
“I might not have executed the race in the same way, if I was chasing or if I was on the inside of the other guys,” he explains his sentiments.
Achieving an Olympic gold was not only a big deal for van Niekerk himself, but the training group under Botha as a whole. Speaking about his coach, his respect for and fondness of her become apparent.
“I keep on saying that she’s an inspiration herself,” he tells Boldon. “She’s been waiting years and years to get an Olympic gold medal and she’s got it at the age of 74 – and the world record.
“Who are we to complain that things aren’t coming our way at the right time? She’s been so patient and I think that story speaks for itself and we can learn from that.”
Often mistaken for his grandmother, Botha “really plays more than just a coach role” for van Niekerk and the rest of the training group that includes the likes of sub-10 man Akani Simbine.
“She sees us all as kids wanting to chase a dream,” says van Niekerk. His dream comes in the shape of a sub-43 clocking.
“I’m not necessarily someone that likes counting my chickens before they hatch, but at the age of 24, achieving a record that’s been there forever, you still feel like you’ve got so much more to prove.
“I feel like it’s really just the beginning of so much more I can do as an athlete. So why not believe in getting that sub-43?”
To hear van Niekerk talk about his aims over the shorter sprint distances, the influence his mother had on his career and his faith, watch the full episode below.