It produced a world record and an Olympic title, but for Wayde van Niekerk it was the run that would ignite a thousand dreams.
Since his earth-shattering run at the Rio Olympics a fortnight ago, Van Niekerk has had some time to reflect on his achievement but he admits it will take some time to truly comprehend the enormity of that performance.
“It's still unreal, I was watching the Lausanne 400 metres and it was my name there next to the world record,” Van Niekerk said in an interview over Skype arranged by his sponsors Defy.
“It is something I still need to accept, and come to realise it is actually me and it is there to stay.”
Van Niekerk still describes the race in which he shattered Michael Johnson’s previous record from 1999, as an out-of-body experience. Running from lane eight Van Niekerk had daylight between himself and the rest of a quality field, knocking 0.15 seconds off Johnson’s long-standing record and setting a new global mark of 43.03 sec.
Going into the Games, Van Niekerk had already made history as the first athlete to have posted a sub-10 in the 100m, sub-20 in the 200m, and a sub-44 in the one-lap sprint.
Although a sub-43 was in his mind since last year’s World Championships in Beijing, some doubt had crept in: “Funny enough it was a goal for me since last year, and thinking a 42 would be nice, but in that moment you are so focused you really don’t care about times or anything but that gold,” Van Niekerk said.
“To me I was literally just fighting to get over the finish line first and earn gold. So once I crossed the finish line and looked up at the board, it was a pure blessing.”
It is difficult to believe the man who nearly became the first to dip below 43sec could have any doubts ahead of the race. Although Van Niekerk made it through his heats and semi-finals confidently, he did not quite do it with the same panache as defending champion Kirani James of Grenada or American LaShawn Merritt.
“For a long time I was battling with my 400 fitness this year, and and even in Rio I was battling. But everything came so amazingly right and I am still puzzled about how that happened, but also so grateful for what happened.”
Once the soft-spoken runner unfurled and was at full speed, he left two of the best sprinters looking oddly mediocre. That performance did not only make the world sit up but also finally instilled the belief in Van Niekerk that he can dare to give his dreams more wings.
“After the doubt in my head this year, what I achieved has given me so much more motivation, showed me what I am capable of in future,” Van Niekerk said. “I have a feeling this is only the beginning, just the kick-off for me. I am 24 years old and I’ve achieved so much already.
“I feel so motivated and inspired to do more; I have a sense this is only the beginning.”
The new-found confidence does not bode well for his competitors as he vowed he would ‘explore the 100m and the 200m a bit, and hopefully give Akani and the guys headaches’.
With the world record, Olympic and world titles already in the bank, any event below 400 metres would now be under threat as Van Niekerk aims for a bigger piece of history. Shortly after his run, Jamaican sprinting icon Usain Bolt congratulated the South African on his feat. Van Niekerk said the words of encouragement from the 100m and 200m world-record holder has inspired him to follow in Bolt's footsteps.
“Getting such praise and recognition from the King of Sprints, really does give you a massive boost as an athlete to want to dream bigger.
“Now I have the opportunity to chase down his times, so let’s see what happens, he has motivated and inspired me to believe I can do it as well.”
* Wayde van Niekerk was speaking to Independent Newspapers as a Defy ambassador. - Independent Media