“It was definitely more mental than physical,” Wayde van Niekerk says as the Olympic 400m champion and world record holder charts his slow recovery from a devastating knee injury that threatened to end his career. In October 2017, while playing a charity tag rugby match in Cape Town, the South African tore both his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus cartilage in his right leg.
Van Niekerk had just won another gold medal in the 400m at the world championships in London, as well as silver in the 200m, and he looked ready to fulfil Usain Bolt’s prediction that he would become the sport’s next superstar. His renown was built on a brilliant performance in the 2016 Olympic final in Rio when he ran the 400m in 43.03sec and shattered the world record Michael Johnson had held since 1999. Van Niekerk’s injury was crushing because he missed the next two years, while his subsequent comeback was derailed by the pandemic.
“Obviously with an injury like that,” Van Niekerk says, “you need to be very patient when it comes to your physical recovery. But mentally you think the same way you’ve always thought. You want to be back on the track, you’re ready to challenge your records, you want to compete against the best in the world but physically that’s no longer your reality. So mentally I had to make a big shift. It took a while but I believe I made the right decisions to get myself in the best position I can be at the Olympic Games later this year.”
Van Niekerk, who is 28, makes the startling claim that he might run the 400m faster than he did at his absolute peak. “I think I can,” he says. “I’ve shown a lot of positive signs in training of being faster than before and I’ve matured way more mentally. But I know it’s one thing doing it in training and a different thing back on the track. So it’s really about getting that consistency in terms of being a competitor.”
The notion that Van Niekerk might run the 400m under 43 seconds has been touted before, but surely such a feat is beyond him now? “Well, having 43.03 as my current record, sub-43 is my only next step to take. There’s no other area to go in terms of a personal best. It means going sub-43.”
Does he really think he can run this fast? “I believe so,” Van Niekerk says before echoing himself for emphasis. “I believe so.”
It would be one of the great comeback stories, for it’s difficult to think of many elite athletes who have been able to return to their previous level after such a debilitating injury. Van Niekerk points out that “a few athletes reached out to me. I know English Gardner [an American Rio 4x100m gold medallist] who also had an ACL injury and she came back quite strong. Trayvon Bromell [2015 100m world bronze medallist], who tore his achilles, which is just as painful and just as difficult to come back from, ran an amazing 60m time and 100m recently. I know Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain [who plays for Liverpool, the club Van Niekerk supports]. We got hurt round about the same time. We’ve been in touch quite a bit in terms of checking up on one another and seeing how progress is going and I’ve seen him making a few starts again after coming back from an ACL injury. So I’ve been surrounded by a lot of guys that overcame tough and difficult injuries and we’ve been motivating each other. It helped a lot.”
Van Niekerk pushed himself hard before that fateful afternoon three and a half years ago when he was injured so badly. “I had a lot of time to think about what caused it,” he says. “Coming from five years of competitive track and field and growing from being not ranked at all to being the world record holder takes a toll on your body. I was feeling on top of the world, not knowing that your body tires and you are very vulnerable to injuries. I thought I’d have some fun and that led to me being injured and having to start afresh. I’ve gone back to fighting for my dream from scratch.”
He won the 400m at the 2017 World Championships and then decided to double up and try to win the 200m as well. He came close, finishing second, but could this have placed excessive strain on his knees? “Yes, it obviously did play a role and left my body a bit fatigued. 2017 was probably the most physical, competitive challenge that I’ve ever had and it might have taken a lot out of my body. When you play a touch rugby match you’re looking for trouble. But I’m at peace with what happened and I’m excited for what the future holds. I’m putting everything that I can into getting back and I feel stronger than ever.”
Van Niekerk remembers: “In 2018 I didn’t compete at all. In 2019 I tried, but I had a bone bruise. We had to be careful and then when we tried to come back last year I was infected with Covid. I tried finishing last year with a few races to see what’s missing.”
At his first international meeting since his injury, in Switzerland last September, he recalls: “My biggest challenge was just to deal with the nerves and internal doubts and fears. If we look at my last hundred metres in that race I definitely had the speed back but mentally I was in a totally different space. I had to isolate for 26 days before that and there were a lot of nerves, stress, anxiety. But I went out there and released that weight off my shoulders. I felt much better and that led to a few more races in South Africa.”
The contrast with the Rio Olympics was stark. In 2016, despite being drawn in lane eight in the final, he obliterated one of track and field’s most memorable records. Did he understand the magnitude of breaking a world record that Michael Johnson had set 17 years before? “I wasn’t that educated about Michael,” Van Niekerk admits. “I knew he had the world record but I did not take enough time to understand what it meant to track and field. I was young and more attracted to the current sprinters of that time – Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Justin Gatlin. I grew up watching them and they inspired me. But later on, once I broke his record, I had time to educate myself about all Michael achieved and how great an athlete he was. That gave me massive inspiration and motivation to continue growing.”
Van Niekerk grew up in Kraaifontein, an impoverished area on the fringes of Cape Town. “Everything was basic,” he says in a mild understatement. “All of us South Africans know that we just have to deal with what we have growing up. It was a massive thing to be able to visit another school for a sporting event or leave our environment to go and play in a different city.
“Life was very difficult for my parents but I’m really grateful for the way my family raised me and how they always tried giving me opportunities, even if they had to borrow petrol money to make sure they were there to support me. Their presence meant the world to me. It meant more than the pay-off boots I was wearing on the rugby field or the pay-off shorts I wore on the athletics track.”
His cousin is Cheslin Kolbe, the blisteringly fast wing in the South Africa rugby team who scored a magnificent try in the World Cup final as the Springboks beat England. Kolbe also grew up in Kraaifontein and he and Van Niekerk played in the same schoolboy rugby team. “We grew up together, played in the streets together, played a lot of sports together. We were kids so we just enjoyed playing and winning. We met each other on the track a few times and he definitely had a lot of speed and talent even then. But we had rugby dreams back then. We all thought we would play rugby for the Springboks. So many of the guys we grew up with had so much talent. I swear we could have probably taken a sports empire out of Kraaifontein.”
Van Niekerk has just become an ambassador for Laureus, the organisation that strives to use the power of sport to overcome violence, discrimination and disadvantage with over 200 programmes in 40 countries. South Africa is key to this strategy and, as one of their most famous sportsmen, Van Niekerk’s story echoes these aims as he revisits communities where hope is often dented. “It’s amazing what Laureus are doing in teaching the next generation what sport can give you and how it can change your life. And the way they are using people you look up to is inspiring. At the beginning of my career, when I had the opportunity to meet Usain Bolt, it really helped me to dream bigger.”
His sporting focus is fixed on the Tokyo Olympics. Does he believe that they will still take place after being postponed last year? “If we look at other sports, football is still going on, the Australian Open happened in tennis, Formula One will start soon. All the big sports are continuing. So like any other professional I need to focus on when my kick-off is due and make sure that I’m ready for the Olympic Games.”
The delay must have helped because last year, surely, would have been too soon for Van Niekerk to defend his Olympic title? “I wouldn’t say so. I was ready regardless. I think it was more of an inconsistency in terms of training and competing – that made it difficult and complicated. In track and field, the more you race, the more your body improves. Last year we didn’t have that opportunity to put our bodies and minds into an environment where we are competing against the best in the world. I believe if I had the competitions that I wanted and needed I would have been ready. Now, everything is slowly but surely starting to open up. So hopefully we can soon start competing and racing again. I will be ready when the gun goes.”
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