Cape Town – Wayde van Niekerk may be taking more of a holistic approach to athletics these days, but his competitive spirit is burning as bright as ever.
The 400m world record holder and 2016 Olympic champion has had a rough time with injuries over the better part of the last seven years, even since that fateful October 2017 day at Newlands Rugby Stadium, when he sustained a serious knee injury after slipping during a celebrity touch rugby game ahead of a Springbok-All Black clash.
Despite reaching the semi-finals at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, the 30-year-old sprinter only really started getting closer to his best last year, when he ran a fastest time of 44.33 seconds.
Van Niekerk has improved on that effort already this year, even though he hasn’t competed much, as he produced a fine run of 44.17 to win the South African title in Potchefstroom on April 1.
He opted to get back to training for a month at his Florida base, before tackling the one-lap event at the Racers Grand Prix in Kingston, Jamaica earlier this month, where he was victorious with 44.21.
Now he is getting ready for Thursday’s Diamond League Bislett Games in Oslo in a positive frame of mind as he continues his build-up to the world championships in Budapest in August.
But it wasn’t always a smooth ride in dealing with his recovery from his injury. “It’s so important to look after ourselves and stay healthy, so trying to manage that has been very challenging for me – because I am someone who always wants to go out aggressively and always want to give my best whenever I have the opportunity,” Van Niekerk said during a pre-race press conference in Oslo on Wednesday.
“It wasn’t that easy at first, so it was a big learning curve for me at the start because, going through an injury, the first thing you think of is, ‘How am I going to get back stronger than ever before’ and staying motivated and being positive.
“Then in your first race back, you can’t go as quickly as you’d like to, or as hard as you’d like to, and it’s just a constant back and forth with your health.
“Right now, I’m working hard on my patience, to make sure I manage my body correctly, and also managing my races correctly.
“I think I’ve got myself into a good momentum now, so hopefully I can build on that and get back to running those aggressive times again.”
Asked about the mental challenges involved in becoming fit and searching for his form again, the two-time world champion added: “That’s a tough one, it’s really a tough one, to be honest with you. It’s a constant battle of keeping true to who you are and what you want to achieve in your goals.
“To a large extent, there were days where I thought it was done: I would never get back to the track again.
“But there’s something in your subconscious, in your heart that would never allow me to give up, and I just try to always dig into that whenever I have the opportunity to – and whenever things are tough.
“I’m a very spiritual person, so I am always trying to improve my faith and rely on my faith through those difficult days.
“So, for me physically, it was never really a challenge because my event is one where you constantly push your body to limits, and you constantly hurting yourself and trying to break barriers.
“So, when you ask me to do a physical challenge, I am always ready. And when it comes to the mental side, we always need to be tough and always have to put up a strong persona.
“But going through an injury, you have to start digging into vulnerabilities, and you have to start digging into areas that, I guess as a strong, tough athlete, you don’t really want to go into that too much and you don’t want to linger on that too much, because then you’re too soft or too vulnerable.
“So, it was a tough battle, and it’s still something that I’m constantly working on and trying to improve myself.
“But I know once the performances improve, the head will fix itself. I’m just constantly trying to be in a race and present, and just appreciating the moment.
“I spoke to my agent as well and I was like, ‘Let’s do Oslo, let’s do the Diamond Leagues and the meetings that I’ve never done before, so that I can experience the entire experience of being a track athlete and just enjoying it again’.
“We got so caught into wanting to hit heights and break records, and be the fastest that’s ever lived – which is fine, which is good. But at the same time, we think back to when we were kids and would run back and forth all the time – not thinking about if we are going to get hurt or not.
“Just getting back to that mindset of appreciating what we have … I mean, there are people that live nine-to-five jobs, get home, sleep and have to get ready tomorrow morning – and we’re doing running!”
Van Niekerk won’t have an easy time in Oslo on Thursday night (8.15pm SA time), as he will go head-to-head with the fastest 400m runner in the world this year, 20-year-old Zambian ace Muzala Samukonga, who set his personal best of 43.91 in Botswana in late April.
The South African star, though, could break another Michael Johnson record – having already gone past the American’s previous world mark of 43.18.
Johnson’s meeting record for the Bislett Games is 43.86, which he produced in 1995 – when Van Niekerk was just three years old.
During Wednesday’s press conference, when the MC mentioned that Van Niekerk could dip under 44 seconds on Thursday, he responded: “Has that happened here before?”
The 400m hurdles world record holder Karsten Warholm, who was sitting next to Van Niekerk, said that a 43-second 400m in Oslo was run “not too many times”.
Another official then spoke about Johnson’s meeting record, to which Van Niekerk nodded and made a ‘hmmm’ sound – almost as if to say, “Okay, let’s see if I can beat that”.
“If I look at my last two races, it looked quite consistent, a 44.17 and a 44.21. I would love to start improving on those times and starting dropping them, so that’s my ball-point, go-to (goal) at the moment,” he added.
“Then, as I start dropping my times, just to improve that and take it race by race. So, I think, right now, I’d love to go quicker than my last race, and then hopefully the next one I can go quicker – until we get to the world champs and surprise!”