Wayde van Niekerk delivered South Africa’s first gold medal of the 2016 Olympics – and he did it in style, breaking the world record too.
Here, in quotes taken with an exclusive interview with MARK ETHERIDGE in the current issue of SASCOC’s Road to Rio magazine, we have a look at what he had to say heading into Rio.
On pre-Rio preparation: ‘I’m really not too fussy about changing anything. I’m keeping things simple, training every day and putting in the hard yards. Sure there are niggles now and then, but I’m staying positive. That’s the way I got gold in Beijing last year so almost nothing will change.’
On what changed after winning world championship gold in 2015: ’I like to think of it like this: whether I’m No 1 or not, I still have to start from scratch. The thing is that a World Championships medal really means nothing at the Olympics.’
On being the 400m favourite for Rio: ‘To me it’s actually an advantage. I’m ahead of my dreams and in a good space, just staying out there looking after myself. And if there is any stress about being a favourite, that’s cool, stress is a normal thing.’
On winning an Olympic medal: ‘It will be a case of being fully focused on the medal; the time for running records will come later. I just have to be in shape to deal with the pain of flat-out racing.’
On student protests impacting on his preparation: ‘Unfortunately it will probably mean fewer races in South Africa but I’ll just have to use each one as it comes. As usual, I’ll sit down with my coach and agent to work out our exact plan but latest developments will probably mean we’ll start our overseas season a bit earlier than when we’d originally planned.’
On his Rio rivals: ‘Oh yes, I have to know what they are doing and where I have to be in the broader schedule. I can’t be running 46sec while everyone else is running 44s. I have to be at the same intensity.’
On dealing with fame: ‘I still get the random calls where people don’t respect times and situations, but I’m learning to say no when I have to. At first I felt kind of guilty but I’ve accepted the fact I can’t please everyone. I’m not a big fan of the media frenzy but I’m learning to deal with it. It’s toughest when I’m at varsity. I’m still between the first and second years of my marketing degree but I guess it’s all about building a case of mutual respect.’
On the support he receives: ’I get such support, not only from my mom and dad, but the whole extended family. It’s them who are putting me in this comfortable position I’m in today. It’s just so humbling being able to say I’m living a life I’ve been blessed with, going with the talent and maintaining it.’
On his younger brother Craig: ‘Yeah, he’s running times of around 47sec for 400 these days, but he’s still got to get there. He’s only 18 but already he’s taller than me and physically stronger!’
On the financial side: ‘Those two Mercedes I was presented with at last year’s SA Sports Awards were a huge blessing. Mom and dad each got one … well, my mom and I pretty much share the one and my dad uses the other. I allowed himself a little reward by buying a new Volkswagen GTi.’
Step-dad Steven Swarts on the early years: ‘I met Wayde when he was just 10 years old. Odessa [Van Niekerk’s mom] asked me to help with his coaching. He did 80m and 100m then. I was a middle-distance runner and had to quickly learn about sprinting. At first I trained him like a 400m athlete, doing more middle-distance stuff and improving his stride length because he already had fast leg cadence.
‘He was easy to coach as believed in what we were doing at practice; I’d always explain to him why we did things. Back then I modelled his running style on that of [champion SA sprinter] Morne Nagel.
‘Wayde would always confide in me from early on and would ask, “what do I call you now?” I said “call me Steven” and we continued to have a strong father-son relationship. I learned quickly that there is no such thing as a step-dad, you need to be all in as a father and raise them as your own.
‘At school he played rugby and cricket and I couldn’t miss a match as he was the smallest guy on the field but with the biggest heart and fighting spirit. I feared for him and he was fearless in his tackles.
‘As a son, Wayde would always want to please and is sometimes too hard on himself when he thinks he’s disappointed his parents. He’s humble and would give his last to his family and friends. I truly couldn’t have asked for a better sport personality and role model as son and am blessed to be a father to him and his siblings.’
Odessa Swarts on her world with Wayde: ‘My journey with Wayde started in Tygerberg Hospital, Cape Town. I remember it like it was yesterday and Wayde was fast from the beginning! I was only 18 when I delivered him as a premature baby. After complications Wayde decided that 28 weeks was enough time and could not be held back anymore. He was on his way.
‘He topped the scale at just under 1kg, the tiniest baby I’ve ever seen. I was worried he wouldn’t make it. Doctors said I should prepare for the worst. He eventually received a blood transfusion, but was still given only 24 hours to live.
‘But he was a fighter since day one, having overcome his medical adversities. I’ve always known that I have a child with an extraordinary fighting spirit who goes beyond all my expectations. Wayde has always been very open and honest and does not hide anything. He’ll express how he feels, talk about training, varsity and all the emotional things that go with that.
‘We are just thankful for the support he’s received from SASCOC to assist with international competitions as well as his sponsor, Adidas. It would have been difficult for us as a family to support him financially if it wasn’t for the generosity of these sponsors. We’re blessed as a family to have a world champion still living at home being an inspiration to his siblings and parents.’
Image by Wessel Oosthuizen/SASPA