When Wayde van Niekerk stormed over the finish line to clinch gold at the Rio 2016 Olympics, he firmly established himself as an icon of world athletics.
Breaking Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old 400m world record sparked a majestic reaction across the globe. A star was born.
It was one of the stand-out performances from the Rio Games, prompting many to believe the South African would be athletics’ next poster boy. The man to replace Usain Bolt at the pinnacle of the sport.
“Van Niekerk is so young, what else can he do? Can he go under 43 seconds? It is something I thought I could do, but never did,” said Johnson after van Niekerk’s towering display. “Usain Bolt will be retiring soon, this could be the next star.”
He was plastered across the sports pages. Every brand wanted to work with him. Every newspaper requested an interview. Through all the exposure, he stayed modest, stayed driven.
All he was focused on was to achieve more success on the track, to keep bettering himself.
The following year the Cape Town man blazed home to secure world championship glory in London. Bolt retired that month. Van Niekerk was the new heir apparent.
But just when things started to improve, his career quickly derailed.
He tore his anterior cruciate knee ligament (ACL) in a charity touch rugby match in Cape Town in late 2017. He didn’t realise the severity of the injury until a few days later. A long road to recovery lay ahead.
There have been many dark days during that rehabilitation process, however, that resilience and drive to be atop the podium again have fuelled his ambition. Doubt is part of being an athlete. Being critical creates questions, allowing you to unlock your vast potential.
Nearly three years on from his knee injury, signs of progress are beginning to show for the 27-year-old. A man many fans can’t wait to see back competing on the global stage.
While the decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics until 2021 came as a blow to many athletes, it gives van Niekerk more time to prepare, and improve his fitness and speed.
As he said to the Olympic Channel last year, “Tokyo is just another stepping stone to the entire legacy that I want to leave behind.”
He has time on his side. He is slowing getting back to his best. He only returned to competitive action in February and while he might be a bit off where he wants to be but that will come with patience.
He made a winning return to action in a 400m race in the Free State championship in February 2019 but missed the world championships last September because of a bone bruise on the knee.
In his absence, Steven Gardiner sealed world gold with Colombia’s Anthony Jose Zambrano taking silver ahead of USA’s Fred Kerley.
While the lights and cameras fixed on the world championships, van Niekerk was training quietly away from the big stage. He may have only been away from the track for two years, however, people can be quick to forget sometimes.
He completed in his first race in 12 months in Bloemfontein on February 17, crossing the line first in a hand-timed 10.20 secs over 100m. A week later he won both 200m and 400m races.
While his victory may not have been an official meet, finishing a race without complication to the knee was a significant boost as he bids to return to top form.
For the past two years, that simple act of sprinting had been filled with so much doubt. Winning those races was proof that his body could do it again.
With his family and close friends providing positive energy, van Niekerk has switched from comeback mode into warrior spirit. Ready for battle when the season does resume.
Usually, he has his coach Ans Botha by his side, but with strict lockdown rules in South Africa, both are distancing themselves for the time being.
Botha is 78-years-old and has played a huge role in van Niekerk’s progress over the years.
Nevertheless, he continues to train at his Cape Town base, using an advanced treadmill to challenge him in different ways.
However, despite his thirst for Olympic success, some pundits believe it will be difficult for van Niekerk to retain his crown in Tokyo, especially after sustaining an injury of that severity.
Injuries can steal careers – that is the grim reality – however, van Niekerk loves a challenge. And the postponement of the Olympics until 2021 gives him more time to get back to his stellar best.
Now completely pain-free, those long hours at home have reignited that hunger and drive. Progress is strong and there is a high chance of him scaling those heights of four years ago. Success is drawn to him.
He previously said he wanted to go where no man has gone before – to run a sub-43 second 400m. That’s where he wants to be at. No better place to do it than in Tokyo.
It would be an incredible comeback if the South African could return to his best and make a successful defence of his Olympic title.
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