The 400m Olympic champion talks about the world record, recovery and mental toughness: “I am hungrier than before. Sub-43 is definitely where I want to go."
Olympic 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk can't wait to get back into action.
Yes, he was relieved about the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as it gives him more time to find his top form after a serious knee injury in October 2017 but make no mistake. The South African 400m world record holder is ‘ready’ and itching to show his stuff on the international track scene again.
Van Niekerk believes that his best is yet to come.“I am hungrier than before,” he told Olympic Channel from Cape Town, where he is locked down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I still believe I can go sub-43. I can go way better than what I have in 100m and 200m, that’s where my mind was before the injury and that’s where my mind is at for the future."
His successful comeback also depends on the guidance of his coach of eight years, Ans Botha. In the early stages of the virus outbreak van Niekerk was very concerned about continuing to train with the 78-year-old who guided him to to Olympic gold and the world record at Rio 2016..
“It started becoming more stressful and scarier,” the 27-year-old told Olympic Channel adding that the lockdown in South Africa made it easier for both of them to deal with it.
“Knowing that I had to be interacting with coach every day and hearing how it affects the older people. It took a bit of stress off our shoulders and it made a bit easier and for us to distance ourselves from society.”
It’s been 29 months since he suffered medial and lateral tears of the meniscus and a torn anterior cruciate ligament at a charity touch rugby match.
After surgery he went through a protracted period of rehabilitation and what seemed an uncertain moment.
He missed the chance to defend his 400m World title in Doha, and better his 200m silver from London 2017.
There were concerns that the double world champion may have been battered and fatigued by the recovery process.
He remained confident as he “worked towards breaking barriers” that he would find his spark.
“I never entertained the fact of never recovering fully. My mind knew what needs to be done to get as far away from the position I was in at that moment,” he said.
“I was driven by what moves need to be taken so that I can get back to the track and compete again, that’s where my mind and my heart was at.”
He experienced the mental toughness it took to get through an injury that interrupted his sprinting at the peak of his career.
“The period showed me that I can fight through whatever challenges I have experienced, and also whatever challenges that awaits me for the rest of this life.”
Now completely pain-free and his “knee good enough to walk and train,” it could be only a matter of time before the driven side of Van Niekerk comes out.
“I am hungrier than before,” he said.
“I’ve had some time to take in what I have achieved this far, and also it was big confidence booster, to see what I have done and what I am capable of. That helps me a lot to stay firm and grounded on where I want to be and what I want to do.”
Van Niekerk has defied the odds time and again.
In Rio, he spectacularly sprinted to gold in a world record of 43.03 seconds from the less-regarded lane eight at his debut Olympics, thus improving one of track and field's most famous records that had stood for 17 years: the 43.18 set by Olympic legend Michael Johnson.
It was a moment in history that still keeps him motivated.
“The only part of the race that you can really appreciate would be after the race. During the race you are so focused and so fixed on getting the race done.
"Once you pass the line you can sit back, reflect and appreciate what has happened,” said the sprinter who survived premature birth and endured bullying in school.
With his family and close circle of friends providing positive energy, van Niekerk has switched from comeback mode into getting fully back in the swing of things.
“My mentality now is being a competitor and with that there is always a competitive edge to want to improve, to want to get better and I think for myself there will always be areas I feel I can improve and that’s not because I was injured, but as a competitor I have this image of what perfect should be.”
“The fact that I showed some signs of speed again really gave me a good feel,” he said, adding that he is keen on defending his title at Tokyo 2020.
“It really helps [me] want to push harder, work harder and improve from where I saw I could perform at. It’s really comforting knowing that I have got that speed again and that little bit of edge.”
He may be the master of the one-lap race but van Niekerk also delivered historic performances over the 100m, 200m, and 300m.
In 2017 in Ostrava he broke Johnson's and Usain Bolt's marks with a world-best 30.81 in the 300m.
This was just days after he dashed to 9.94 seconds in the 100m.
Van Niekerk is the first athlete to break the 10-second (100m), 20-second (200m), 31-second (300m) as well as the 44-second (400m) barriers.
With the high-energy back, how much faster can he go?
"If you ask me in what way the best Wayde van Niekerk is still to come? I still want to improve my 400m, 100m, 200m, 300m time, meaning overall I still believe I can do better,” he said.
He wants to leave an unmatched legacy in the 400m where his “heart is at” and where Johnson "tried and failed".
“Sub-43 is definitely where I want to go, it’s the only place I need to go now to see great for myself.
"If I don’t go sub-43 that means I am not growing. There’s no other goal than the sub-43 myself right now.
“That’s what I am working for and that’s where I want to be at.
"When I do it, it would be a blessing, it would be a bonus but it needs to be done and that’s where my heart is at," said van Niekerk, whose mother was a promising sprinter as well.
However, Odessa Swarts was unable to compete internationally during apartheid.
Coach Ans Botha has also played a huge role in his progress.
The 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medallist feels lucky to have an energetic coach who has helped him develop a resilient mindset to achieve his goals.
“At the age of 75 being able to experience her first international gold medal, has been a massive inspiration for myself. I draw a lot of motivation from that. A lot of people at the ages of 20s, 30s want to quit when the going gets tough.
“She has endured through until 75 and got her first gold medal as a coach and I mean that’s super inspiring for anyone in this world and I respect her for that. That drives me and gives me a lot of determination to want to push through the challenges I have in this in life.”
When it’s all done and dusted on the track, he hopes to transfer his speed to the pitch.
“I would definitely end up playing a bit of football after track and field,” said van Niekerk, who is a massive fan of Liverpool.
He is eagerly waiting for his team to be crowned Premier League champions.
"We definitely are the champions of the 2019/20 season. There no question about that, it’s just about seeing what time, the appropriate moment to celebrate with the team," he said.
There is also rugby on his mind. The sport runs deep in his family.
“I enjoy sevens rugby as well, I’d definitely invest some time there,” van Niekerk concluded.
Truly a man of many talents.