WATCH: My biggest challenge is to remember I’m a competitor, says Wayde van Niekerk
CAPE TOWN - He might be the 400m Olympic champion and world record-holder, but that doesn’t mean nerves can’t get the better of Wayde van Niekerk.
In fact, the 28-year-old says that neutralising the jitters before a race is one of the main battles he is fighting at the moment as he plotts his path to Olympic glory once more in Tokyo.
Van Niekerk won his third 200m national title at the Tuks Stadium in Pretoria on Saturday night, bringing the heat in the second part of the race to finish in 20.38 seconds on a cool night in the South African capital.
He wasn’t able to gauge his form against the SA 200m record-holder, Clarence Munyai, who had just crept into the final after finishing third with 21.03 in Friday’s semi-final.
Munyai’s coach, Hennie Kriel, told Independent Media on Saturday night that the 23-year-old had “felt his hamstring” during the semi-final, and thought it was not worth the risk to run in the final. He was also still awaiting the results of a scan.
That meant Van Niekerk had quite an easy time of it in the decider, where he came under early pressure from Nicholas Ferns before motoring away after the bend – he could even afford to slow down a few metres from the finish line.
But the end result belied the nerves he felt beforehand. In a post-race interview with good friend and 100m SA champion Akani Simbine on the BackTrack Sports Facebook live feed – Simbine is the newly appointed chief executive of BackTrack – Van Niekerk said getting into his stride again after a few injury-affected seasons has not been straight-forward.
“I just want to get this off my chest – Akani Simbine is busy interviewing me right now!” he quipped. “Races are quite intense, so I was really just trying to control my nerves and start getting used to the fact that I’m competing.
“It’s a massive opportunity to break through that mental barrier that I had – competing against the likes of yourself (Simbine), to just get back into racing again and calm those nerves down.
“I think that is really my biggest challenge at this moment – it’s just to get that old mentality calm again, and start remembering that I’m a competitor, and being able to make sure that when I get to the track, I can start executing my races the way I actually should.”
On Saturday’s performance, Van Niekerk said: “Today was good. It was quite cold tonight, so the first 100, I was just feeling where I am physically, and as I came out of the bend, I felt comfortable… I felt strong enough to finish the race.
“I wasn’t really trying to push for anything, or any times or anything – just to execute the race and get the win.”
His next step is to travel to the United States to link up with new coach Lance Brauman in Florida, where he will train alongside 200m world champion Noah Lyles.
Van Niekerk has yet to run a 400m race this year, on his coach’s orders, and will look to find his form in the one-lap event during the European season, which kicks off with the Diamond League opener in Gateshead, England on May 23.
His trip to the US has been delayed by visa issues due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
“It’s been a bit of a… let’s say, rough last few months. I’ve not been sure exactly when I’ll be travelling over and what’s happening next. Even the last few races that I did now were all last-minute races that I had to decide on doing, because I haven’t had any flights or anything confirmed,” Van Niekerk said.
“So, I’m hoping this next week I get some concrete answers on when I’m travelling to the US. And then from there, chat to the coach and see what plans or what mentality he has, or advice he has for the year. And then, take it from there.”