VAN NIEKERK – KING OF THE TRACKS
By Thomas Kwenaite
No sooner had Wayde Van Niekerk swept the boards by snatching a hat trick of awards at the Sand du Plessis Theatre in Bloemfontein than he was revealing his ambition to win another gold medal, only this time it would be at the Rio Olympics in Brazil next year.
Humble to a fault, the down-to-earth speed merchant, was voted as the Sportsman of the Year; won the Sportsman of the Year award as voted by a group of sport editors in the country and snatched a hat-trick of awards when he scooped the “People’s Choice” award, a category voted for by the public.
The triple awards netted him a cool R2-m in prizes as well as two brand new Mercedes Benz C-Class sedan cars. He is of course obliged to donate 50% of his winnings to charitable organizations of his choice, but R1-m that he will deposit into his banking account is certainly a jackpot!
“I walk the streets of Bloemfontein,” said the newly crowned SA sports star, “or the streets of any city for that matter and I get mobbed by countless youngsters who all tell me I’m their hero and they want to emulate me when they grow up.
“Some tell me I inspire them; that they have also taken up athletics after watching my triumph at the World Championships. It is a humbling experience and I thank God that I find myself in a position where I can influence the youth in such a positive way.”
The 23-year old earned the respect of the world and his compatriots when he outsprinted LaShawn Merritt (USA) and Granada’s Kirani James (then World Champion and Olympic champion respectively) in that memorable race when he collapsed after hitting the tape.
He became the fourth fastest man in history to dip under 44seconds when he clocked 43.96sec in that race where his gutsy performance which he described as “ready to drag myself over the finish line” after needing medical attention, was the kind of stuff legends are made of.
Few people are aware that Van Niekerk inherited these incredible genes from his parents. His mother Odessa is a former 1.8- high jumper while his biological father Wayne was a 2-m high jumper as well. His stepfather Stephen is a former long distance runner.
Van Niekerk Jun reveals he was quite a useful high jumper himself. “If my memory serves me well, I think I once jumped 2.06m as a junior but once I discovered sprinting, I abandoned high jumping and my step dad has been most influential in this regard.”
Besides high jump, Wayde also played rugby and was a forceful winger and fullback. But like most kids growing up in the township, football was his first love and he followed Liverpool with a passion. And yes, you guessed it… he played the game as well.
But, dabbling in different sporting codes was just for fun. Van Niekerk only discovered his niche discipline when he finished fourth, just 0.02seconds shy of a bronze medal in the 200-m World Junior Championships in Montcon (Canada) during 2010, that he made up his mind to concentrate fully in athletics.
“It was the first time that I had represented my country in any sporting discipline,” recalls Van Niekerk. “It had previously been simply just going out and running. I was quite naïve and green behind the ears at the time and did not really know much about the sport.
“But when sports company adidas approached me after that race and offered to sponsor me, it was the turning point. And by the way, my step dad Stephen played a huge role in my development and coached me from as far back as I can remember. Everything I know, I learned from him.”
Initially he focused on the 200m events. But consistent hamstring injuries forced his coach Anna Botha to advice him into taking up the 400-m “to improve his endurance and recovery training.” Little did he know, that it was going to be the distance that would turn him into a South African star!
“I have stated before that we shall not support mediocrity,” said Minister of Sport Fikile Mbalula. “We shall always encourage excellence and athletes like Van Niekerk not only represent themselves, they raise the country’s flag sky high among sporting nations.
“In addition, it is athletes like Van Niekerk that are playing a key role in social cohesion. Even when you look around in this hall, you realize the diversity of this audience and it is all thanks largely to sport which has the power to bring people closer together.”
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.
It has certainly improved his explosiveness and Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt can attest to that. But now the Bloemfontein Express has a difficult time ahead of him, as the Rio Olympics looms large on the horizon.