The world watched in awe as South African track phenom Wayde van Niekerk raced to Olympic glory at the Rio 2016 Games smashing the previous world 400m record, clocking a spectacular 43.03 seconds running blind from lane eight.
Van Niekerk has made a muted return to international racing following a three-year injury-enforced hiatus just in time to defend the Olympic title he won five years ago.
His return has been anything but plain sailing amidst the global pandemic and injury niggles hampering his preparations for the Tokyo 2020 showpiece that kicks off next week.
We unpack the things you should know about the reigning Olympic 400m champion.
1- A brief history
Van Niekerk’s first love has always been the short-sprint distances but transitioned to the gruelling 400m sprint event after battling with injuries early in his career.
He highlighted his potential when he dismantled the 15-year-old South African record in the men’s 400m in New York in June 2014 with a time of 44.38.
Van Niekerk dipped below 44 seconds for the first time in July 2015, becoming the first African athlete to achieve this feat. Ten days later, he set a new national 200m record, clocking a sub-20 seconds time.
Van Niekerk won his maiden world 400m title in Beijing 2015, posting a new national record of 43.48, which launched him into fourth place on the world all-time list.
He realised a life-long dream early in 2016, breaking through the magical 10-second barrier in the 100m for the first time clocking 9.98. In the process, he became the first athlete to produce sub-10, sub-20 and sub-44 performances in the 100m, 200m and 400m, respectively.
For his pièce de résistance, Van Niekerk won the Olympic 400m gold medal at the Rio Games, chopping 0.15s off American icon Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record.
A year later, he would add another string to his bow setting a new 300m world best clocking 30.81 in Ostrava.
Van Niekerk successfully defended his 400m world title at the 2017 London global championships, where he came close to adding the 200m title-winning silver in the half-lap sprint.
2 – Career-threatening injury
A brief foray into tag rugby nearly ended Van Niekerk’s athletics career. At the end of the 2017 season, Van Niekerk swapped his spikes for rugby boots to participate in a celebrity touch rugby match.
Van Niekerk would live to regret his decision injuring his left knee, which required surgery. He sustained medial and lateral tears of the meniscus and a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
The South African jetted off to the United States for the operation just hours after he tied the knot with long-time girlfriend, Chesney Campbell.
His comeback has been a long, laborious process, with Van Niekerk racing for the first time at the beginning of 2019. A bone bruise further delayed his full return to the track.
Van Niekerk seems to be hitting his straps in 2021 despite a stop-start season after he clocked the 400m Olympic qualifying standard at a meeting in Madrid, finishing second in 44.56 seconds in his first one-lap race of the season.
3 – New title on the way
Van Niekerk revealed on the eve of the start of this year’s Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games that he would soon add a new title to his name – dad.
He announced on social media that his wife, Chesney, was expecting their first child, and they would soon reveal the gender.
“I’m so excited to announce that we’re having a BABY!! ❤️❤️❤️
We are looking forward to this process and to have a healthy and blessed pregnancy. Soon the Vans will be joined by a little Super Van,” Chesney posted on Instagram.
Van Niekerk and Chesney were born on the same day: 15 July 1992. Now they will also share diaper duties.
4 – Gold runs in the family
Van Niekerk and his distant cousin sevens player Cheslin Kolbe stepped onto the podium at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Kolbe was a member of the South African sevens team that won the bronze medal in Rio, where the sports made its debut.
Blessed with a running talent both Kolbe and Van Niekerk has reached the pinnacles of their sport. Kolbe added the Rugby World Cup title to the Olympic bronze medal as a member of the Springbok team that beat England in the final in Japan 2019.
Van Niekerk and Kolbe played rugby in the same team in junior school, where the duo would earn pocket money for every try they scored for the team.
5 – The septuagenarian coach
Much of Van Niekerk’s success can be attributed to his former coach Tannie Ans Botha, who was in her mid-70s when her protegee won the Olympic gold medal.
The white-haired great-grandmother of four was instrumental in Van Niekerk’s decision to specialise in the one-lap sprint event.
Hampered by injuries, Botha advised her protégé to move up in distance as part of the rehabilitation process. The move paid rich dividends, with Van Niekerk developing into the fastest man ever over one lap.
At the beginning of 2021, Van Niekerk would split from Botha to join coach Lance Brauman and his training group in the United States. The group includes US 200m world record holder Noah Lyles and Bahamian Olympic gold medallist Shaunae Miller-Uibo.