Fast, Furious and lucky to be alive

Published 7 years ago
Fast, Furious and lucky to be alive

When Wayde van Niekerk returned from winning a 400-meter gold medal at the World Championships in Beijing last year, only his mother Odessa was at the airport to welcome him home.

Despite this monumental achievement, he was little known outside of athletics circles. Twelve months on, he is a star on a meteoric rise and will head to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August among South Africa’s leading medal hopefuls.

Van Niekerk already holds a special piece of history as the only person to run under 10 seconds in the 100 meters, sub-20 in the 200 meters and below 44 in the 400 meters, but will focus on just one of those in Rio.


“I’m only looking to compete in the 400-meters, in the future I will look at other events. I want to get myself a solid medal and then take it from there,” Van Niekerk tells FORBES AFRICA.

Despite his impressive times, in reality his chances of medals in the other events would be very slim and he would stand next to no chance of gold competing against the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, in the two shorter distances.

BEIJING, CHINA – AUGUST 26: Wayde Van Niekerk of South Africa crosses the finish line to win gold in the Men’s 400 metres final during day five of the 15th IAAF World Athletics Championships Beijing 2015 at Beijing National Stadium on August 26, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Van Niekerk has already cleared a number of hurdles in his life, including a premature birth that left him fighting for his life, and he believes he can improve those times in the future.


“I believe I still have a lot more in the tank, I’ve just started racing against the best in the world,” he says. “But records are not my goals, I want to win for South Africa.”

“I am excited to show the world that South Africa belongs to be there among the world’s greatest sporting countries.”

Sitting with Van Niekerk, he cuts a determined and focused figure, confident but also humble.

He is, in a way, living the life his mother, now remarried after the deterioration of her relationship with his father, never had due to apartheid. Like her son, she was a talented sprinter competing under the banner of the non-racial South African Council on Sport (SACOS).


Whether she could have made an impact on the international stage is conjecture, but she was denied the chance to try. Van Niekerk says that knowledge drives him to succeed, hinting too that his career has healed a rift between his parents.

“What gives me an extra push is my family, the people who have played a role in getting me to where I am today. Running in my family’s name and representing them is very important to me. More recently having the whole country behind me has been great too.”

“My mom and my dad are super supportive. I appreciate the opportunity we have as a family and I’m grateful that it has brought a sense of togetherness to my family.”

“It’s got my family back together and supporting me, we are not thinking about the past but only the future. This is our moment and I am trying to make each and every one of them proud.”


Tears well in his eyes as he relays the story of his birth, at just 900 grams, and the immediate aftermath that was torture for Odessa.

“Every day she woke up, she wasn’t sure I would be alive. It makes me emotional that my mother had to go through that.”

It’s the reason Van Niekerk donated around $30,000 of his prizemoney from winning the Sportsman of the Year at the 2015 South African Sports Awards last November to the Groote Schuur Hospital’s neonatal unit, where he spent time in an incubator in 1992.

“My contribution is me trying to help others,” he says.


Life may have started out tough for Van Niekerk, but things turned when he attended famed sports school Grey College in Bloemfontein.

“Grey College created the environment for me to succeed. I had to push myself but the school aspires to sporting excellence and I am grateful for the opportunity to have gone there.”

He emerged as a potential 400-meter champion in 2013 when he broke the South African record, and then took silver at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow a year later. It was not until his gold in Beijing that the world really started to take notice though.

“I’m very confident and comfortable in the position I’m in. I’m excited to see what lies ahead of me,” he says. “I cherish every single medal I have. I’ve got this opportunity to go out there and live out my dreams and achieve as much as I can by doing what I love.”


“When it comes to the Olympics it’s another opportunity for me to tick off another title in my career.”

Van Niekerk, who has the fourth fastest time ever in the 400-meters of 43.48, will compete in Rio against LaShawn Merritt of the United States and Kirani James of Grenada.

James has run the quickest time this year of 44.08, but Van Niekerk is just 0.03 off that time in 2016.

“I doubt any of the top three guys are going to Rio not to win the gold medal, that is certainly my vision and goal for the Olympics,” he says. “I am not thinking about any other medal at the moment, but obviously I need to go there healthy and put in my best performance.”

His chances were boosted by the opportunity to train with Bolt and fellow sprinter, Yohan Blake, in Jamaica in June.

“I feel I can learn a lot from them and can improve myself as an athlete,” he says.

Van Niekerk has also welcomed the decision of the International Olympic Committee to re-test drug samples from previous Olympics to root out those who have used banned substances.

“It’s good to know they are going out there and digging out the guys who have been cheating. It’s not a nice feeling knowing you are giving your all out there and somebody else is cheating.”

The Cape Town-born speedster admits he remembers very little of his races, but whatever happens in Rio, he can have no regrets.

“The race itself is a blank experience, I only remember the end. All stresses disappear right there. It’s about me giving my everything and leaving it all there on the track.”