South Africa's Rio hero Wayde van Niekerk: "I'm going to leave it all on the track"

The 400m world record holder and defending Olympic champion spoke exclusively to Tokyo 2020 about tapping into his "lane-eight mentality," his recent injury and "leaving the door open" for gold.

Picture by 2016 Getty Images

A flood of self-doubt infiltrated Wayde van Niekerk's mind mere minutes before he was expected to perform his magnum opus.

Fueled by fear and fanned by back and hamstring niggles, Van Niekerk was overcome by emotions shortly before the 400m final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

In that moment, he had effectively been weighed down by the expectations of the so-called perfect race that had played on repeat in his mind in the build-up to the Games.

Wiping away the tears, Van Niekerk gathered his thoughts: "Wayde, you've done great so far, you have put in the hard work, you have worked hard to be where you are."

By the time he stepped onto the track and approached the starting blocks, all the self-doubt, fear, and worries had dissipated.

Running blind from lane eight, the kid from Kraaifontein, in the Western Cape of South Africa, executed his perfect race crossing the line as Olympic champion and world-record breaker. His time of 43.03 seconds wiped out the world record the great Michael Johnson held since 1999, earning him a place in Olympic history.

READ | Wayde van Niekerk: Five things to know about the Olympic 400m champion and world record holder

A dream deferred

Now, five years later, Van Niekerk will have to tap into the memory of Rio 2016 as he faces one of the biggest challenges of his career.

He spent three-quarters of this Olympic cycle sidelined by injury and in what seemed to be a never-ending process to rebuild his body from a career-threatening injury.

"There are so many differences to 2016, but my biggest draw from there would be tapping into that lane-eight mentality again, maybe every South African can pray to put me back in lane eight, then maybe we will do some damage again," Van Niekerk said in an interview with Olympics.com.

When I say leave it all on the track, I'm going to leave it all on the track.

"That's definitely been a massive motivation for me, and now it is just to make sure that I come out here [at Tokyo 2020] run my own race, focus on what needs to be done and when it gets to the finals just to leave it all on the track.

"And you know, when I say leave it all on the track, I'm going to leave it all on the track. So I'm looking forward to this next few weeks and days at the Games and see where that takes us."

Making it to his second Olympic Games in itself is an achievement, never mind possibly defending his title, considering the extent of the injury he suffered towards the end of 2017.

When Van Niekerk injured his knee in a celebrity touch rugby match, he was riding the wave of his success, winning back-to-back titles at the World Championships in London, where he also won the 200m silver medal.

He had already shifted his goals towards his title defence in Tokyo 2020 and on becoming the first man to dip below 43 seconds in his specialist event.

The diagnosis was devastating, a torn meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament injury -- a dream deferred.

Signs of hope and optimism

Few gave Van Niekerk a chance of returning to the type of form that had earned him track acclaim, and the delayed comebacks from other injuries did not help.

Van Niekerk again had to fight off the demons of self-doubt, where he had to gain confidence from small victories. From walking for the first time again to jogging and eventually getting to the point that he could sprint at full tilt.

"It's been a tough last few years, but I mean, this is a reality of a sportsperson, Van Niekerk said. "We go through these things on a regular,"

"I had to make sure that I use that in a positive direction and make sure that I reap off of this and not to take negatives from it," he added. "And as we've seen, the last year has started showing a lot of positives, and it's started showing a lot of hope and optimism.

"I'm looking forward to using these Games as a platform and as a space to show how great the Lord has been to me the last few years and then using that as a driving force and a working towards the next few years," Van Niekerk went on.

The pandemic has further delayed Van Niekerk's comeback, and the postponement of the Olympic Games proved to be a year too long for him and his coach Ans Botha.

The duo that conquered two world titles, Olympic gold and the world record, split at the beginning of 2021.

He joined coach Lance Brauman and his training group in the United States. A move he hoped would ignite his comeback and return him to his place at the top of the Olympic podium. The group includes U.S. 200m world-record holder Noah Lyles and Bahamian Olympic gold medallist Shaunae Miller-Uibo.

GettyImages-826579788
Picture by 2017 Getty Images

On the comeback trail

Van Niekerk made a remarkable return to international racing, clocking 44.56 in his first one-lap race of the season to confirm his place for the South African team and a shot at a title defence.

The time ranks him among the top-10 in the world, a feat that seemed impossible just two years ago.

"Being out of the sport for three years and then coming back my first race and I'm amongst the top tier, for me, that was a positive," Van Niekerk said. "For me, that was a big motivation factor to tap back into focusing on the Games and believing that I can start doing well again.

"And obviously, that was just, an intro to my new coach and me and performing at that good level," he added. "I mean, a lot of people don't understand that I come out of a three-year injury, and it takes some time and process to get yourself back on the track."

That was a massive motivation for me to where I am today at the Games now feeling positive and ready to compete for a medal.

Van Niekerk said the time, placed in the context of the last four years, served as a reminder of his abilities and as a major shot in the arm ahead of the Games.

"I've come from a three-year injury, and I got myself back into the top 10 in the world," he said.

"That was a massive motivation for me to where I am today at the Games now feeling positive and ready to compete for a medal. I feel like that was just a small representation of what I believe I can do these next few days and even the next few years coming up. I feel I'm definitely going to be a stronger athlete than I've ever been before."

GettyImages-826579488
Picture by 2017 Getty Images

The dreamer keeps on dreaming

Despite the positive sentiments, doubts remain over Van Niekerk's state of readiness after he pulled out of his last race in Hungary last month due to a back niggle.

Van Niekerk revealed it was the same niggle that weighed so heavy on his mind ahead of his Rio 2016 victory.

The South African phenom had since received treatment from renowned doctor Hans-Wilhelm Mueller-Wohlfahrt, who also worked his magic on Jamaican icon Usain Bolt.

“Funny enough, a lot of people don't know this, but this is the exact same back issue I had before 2016,” Van Niekerk pointed out.

“I've been managing and working with this issue for the last how many years now," he said. “It's really just about managing it and making sure that I put myself in a position to perform. Now I'm feeling good, feeling positive and looking forward to the rounds.”

Who says this might not be a time to do something great and then do greater the next few years coming up?

Asked whether he was still harbouring dreams of dipping below 43 seconds, Van Niekerk said he had defied the odds in the past and there was no reason why he could not do it again.

“We've seen me break through ranks before, that surprised us all. Who would have thought a South African guy would be the world record holder in the 400 metres at this very moment?” he asked. “So when it comes to myself, I leave all doors open when it comes to what I'm capable of and what God can bless me with, I leave all those doors open.”

Van Niekerk said although he believed he could again reach the lofty heights from Rio 2016, it might require some time for him to find his feet again.

“I know that is going to take time," he concluded. "It's going to be a journey and a process that's going to need a lot of patience from me. But who says this might not be a time to do something great and then do greater the next few years coming up?”

GO OLYMPIC. GET ALL THIS.

Free live sport events. Unlimited access to series. Unrivalled Olympic news & highlights.
Sign up here Sign up here