Recovering from a knee injury the last two years, this Olympian sprinter was all set to defend his title at the Tokyo 2020 Games. In lockdown in South Africa, the ardent Mo Salah and Liverpool fan shares how he has been building his endurance and finding positivity in the chaos.
Nothing can get a good sportsman down.
Ask Cape Town-born Wayde van Niekerk, who made history at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a record-breaking performance as a track and field athlete.
In a way, the five-week government-imposed lockdown in South Africa was an extension of Van Niekerk’s own time away from the limelight, when he was already used to living and training indoors, consistently building on his physical and mental endurance.
The serious knee injury in 2017 that kept him away from the track had meant “a hibernation” of a different kind when he was steering himself for the next big competition returning to the field again in 2020.
This was also going to be the year he was going to defend his 400m world record at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“I came out of an injury, and it led to me entering a hibernation period of my life where a lot happened, internally, indoors, away from the TV screens,” says Van Niekerk on a Zoom interview with FORBES AFRICA from his home in Bloemfontein in South Africa’s Free State province, a day after the country lifted the lockdown with Level 4 restrictions.
“As this year started, I had shifted my mentality to becoming an athlete again, and getting ready for the next major competition, and then Covid-19 started, and that led to me taking a step back and shift back to the hibernation stage of training and strengthening myself.
“I am blessed and privileged to have equipment around me and a gym setup at home. So I was well-prepared before even the pandemic… but you do miss the track but this pandemic is something we all have to face.”
The 28-year-old, who showed promise from an early age, and who was also listed as one of FORBES AFRICA’s 30 Under 30 achievers in 2019, says he has been using the time to find peace in chaos.
“What I have learned is to try and find that peace, that positivity and calm in this storm. It’s a mentality shift that I had to meditate on, that I build a positive foundation, that I reap every strength and positivity invested in me, that once I come out of the injury, I come out stronger. Now, I am making sure my physical and mental strength can complement one another.”
With the Tokyo 2020 Games now postponed owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, did it give him the gift of time?
“Not really. Every time is a blessing,” says Van Niekerk. “I prepared myself for that this year, but reality is what it is. And we can’t be dwelling on the losses… we can either see it as time lost or there is a goal I have set for myself, the way I am going to get it is not important. It doesn’t matter the platform it happens on, as long as it happens. I have been investing my time into it.”
From 200m events as a junior athlete, to a 400m specialist later in life, Van Niekerk is clearly among the most versatile sprinters in the history of the sport.
You can sense it’s no fake modesty when he tells you that the time away from the track has also made him want to do more for the less fortunate around him. The attention is not on himself.
“I find it difficult to focus on just me… I am very passionate about helping those around me. I am not a fan of wanting to do things that become a media event,” he says simply.
“We are going through this period to cleanse and strengthen ourselves… Forget about who you are, and see whose lives you can make easier. The people who are struggling now are the people who will give you the biggest smile and who will give you the confidence. And now it’s time for us as sports people and as human beings to find ways to consider those around us who are less fortunate and not as blessed as we are.”
The transition from indoor fitness to outdoor training, once the lockdown regulations are fully lifted, is not going to be an easy one.
“There are a lot of technical things to it in terms of getting 100% race-fit for an international stage and trying to do some competitions; to just shake off that rust and to get the legs going and the body moving and the blood flowing again. There is a massive difference between a gym workout and being a track athlete. There will be a whole few months before we get to be at the level and shape where we can improve ourselves as athletes,” he says.
The ardent Mo Salah and Liverpool fan has also been engaging with his network of sports comrades around the world. Jamaican former sprinter Usain Bolt is a good friend. You ask if he has been in touch.
“I communicate with most, but Usain is more about the banter. He’s always teasing me about the Premier League not going to finish, so they keep trying to tap into that nerve of mine as I am a passionate Liverpool supporter. So I am trying not to entertain that side of them,” laughs Van Niekerk.
As a child, Van Niekerk dreamed of becoming the fastest man in the world. It’s a dream that still keeps the speedster going.
“It is what I have been investing in ever since I was young, and what I want to achieve. With the barriers I broke came confidence, and why not believe in what I can achieve? I am invested 110% to want to improve the 100m, 200m and up to 400m, and I am more hungry and determined than ever before!”