Be warned: Storm Wayde is brewing
Apart from being immediately ruled out for over six months, Van Niekerk was unable to defend his 400m world title in Doha last year after suffering bone bruising in his knee.
That meant more frustrating rehabilitation, and one wondered whether the 27-year-old would ever get back on to the track, let alone reach the heights that saw him smash Michael Johnson’s 400m world record of 43.18 by winning gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a time of 43.03.
American legend Johnson himself is not quite sure. Speaking to Independent Media at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Berlin recently, the four-time Olympic champion didn’t doubt Van Niekerk’s ability, but felt that the lack of preparation time could be a problem for the South African, with the 400m heats at the Tokyo Games starting on August 2.
“Mentally, it is tough to come back after two years - and to come back in an Olympic year, and so many runners are running really fast. But also, everyone’s different, and it takes a different mindset to become a world champion, an Olympic champion, or a world record-holder,” Johnson said.
“So, that’s a different type of athlete who may not be as human or the same as others. It’s not to say that Wayde doesn’t have any chance. He’s a different kind of athlete, so he may not take the same pattern as everyone else. So, we’ll just have to see.”
True to form, Van Niekerk has shown in recent weeks that he is a “different kind of athlete”. He started posting videos and pictures of himself working out on the track and in the gym since September last year, where he was training at his European base in Gemona, Italy.
He also visited his beloved Liverpool at Anfield, and celebrated his cousin Cheslin Kolbe’s success with the Springboks at the Rugby World Cup.
But now, all that hard work off the track has finally resulted in him getting back into race mode. He ran 10.20 seconds on grass in the 100m in an unofficial meeting in Bloemfontein on February 17, which was followed by an 800m race that would’ve been endurance work for his favourite 400m distance.
“Was nice getting the competitive feeling and experiencing all the emotions again. I think I’m never doing a 800m again. Looking forward to the next one,” Van Niekerk tweeted, with the customary #QuietStorm at the end.
A few days later, Van Niekerk posted videos of himself running in 100m and 200m races, where he clocked 10.10 and 20.31 respectively - decent times for someone who has been sidelined for such a lengthy period.
Now he is gearing up for his first 400m event of the season, at the Free State Championships in Bloemfontein today. Van Niekerk will be in the blocks at 12.40pm - the start of his journey to Tokyo.
“We are very happy and blessed that the man is now again able to go full tilt out on the track. We are taking it step by step, and that is why he has been doing all these other races so far,” his agent Peet van Zyl told Independent Media.
“This weekend with the Free State Championships, there will be a few guys that will test him a bit. So, it will be good to see how he goes, and after that, we will get ready for the ASA Grand Prix meetings, and the SA Championships.
"Then we will have a very good idea of where the man is. He’s had no pain or any problems.”
Van Zyl confirmed that Van Niekerk will only participate in the 400m at the Olympics, but that he will sit with coach ‘Tannie’ Ans Botha in April to work out his European programme ahead of Tokyo - although that may be affected by the coronavirus that has resulted in a number of sporting events being postponed or cancelled.
Before his overseas stint, Van Niekerk is likely to take part in the local Grand Prix series in Cape Town (April 9), Pretoria (April 14) and Potchefstroom (April 18) ahead of the SA Championships at Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria from April 23-25.
So, there’s quite a lengthy road ahead before the Olympics, but SA fans will be hoping that Van Niekerk can be in peak condition in Tokyo, with a cloud still hanging over Caster Semenya’s participation, while there aren’t too many other genuine medal contenders in Team SA.
Van Niekerk, though, was positive in an Instagram post on Thursday, in which he has his finger on his lips with the words: “Everything’s going to be alright. #QuietStorm”.
Athletics world, you have been warned - the Wayde van Niekerk storm is coming.