Cape Town — Wayde van Niekerk waited and waited, and pounced at just the right time to show who rules the 400m as he stormed to the gold medal at the South African championships in Potchefstroom on Saturday.
And more importantly, the winning time of 44.17 seconds was even faster than his quickest effort last year of 44.33.
The 2016 Olympic champion and world record-holder already cruised to a sub-45 time in the semi-finals in the morning, clocking 44.95.
But world junior champion Lythe Pillay’s personal best of 44.94 in his semi-final set the stage for a thrilling duel in the decider, and it didn’t disappoint the boisterous crowd at the NWU McArthur Stadium.
After bursting out of the blocks in his semi-final, Boland athlete Van Niekerk held fire in the final, making a steady start as Central Gauteng’s Pillay and Western Province star Gardeo Isaacs set the pace initially.
The 30-year-old, whose world record 43.03 came in the Rio 2016 final, made his move with about 100 metres to go as he sprinted past Pillay and Isaacs and jolted into a comfortable lead.
But the title wasn’t enough as Van Niekerk kept pushing all the way to the finish line, and he raised his right arm in triumph as he saw the clock showing 44.17, which is the second-fastest ever 400m time on South African soil, behind his 44.11 in Bloemfontein in 2016, and a world lead for 2023.
The Potchefstroom fans were on their feet as they roared in delight to hail their hero, and it was a moment to savour for Pillay too, as he enjoyed a strong finish to set another new personal best of 44.80 — which is a world championship qualifying time as well.
𝐖![CDATA]>𝐚![CDATA]>𝐲![CDATA]>𝐝![CDATA]>𝐞 𝐯![CDATA]>𝐚![CDATA]>𝐧 𝐍![CDATA]>𝐢![CDATA]>𝐞![CDATA]>𝐤![CDATA]>𝐞![CDATA]>𝐫![CDATA]>𝐤 𝐝![CDATA]>𝐨![CDATA]>𝐞![CDATA]>𝐬 𝐰![CDATA]>𝐡![CDATA]>𝐚![CDATA]>𝐭 𝐡![CDATA]>𝐞 𝐝![CDATA]>𝐨![CDATA]>𝐞![CDATA]>𝐬 𝐛![CDATA]>𝐞![CDATA]>𝐬![CDATA]>𝐭! 👏— SuperSport 🏆 (@SuperSportTV) April 1, 2023
He claims the national title in the #ASATrackandFieldChamps with an unofficial time of 44.17 in the Men’s 400m final 🏃♂️ pic.twitter.com/e8OMrkjRAb
“I feel good. It was a great run, a great competition. I must say thank you to the crowd — they cheered us on, and it became really motivating. We are so focused on the race ahead, but it played a big role in crossing the finish line,” Van Niekerk told SuperSport in a track-side TV interview.
But running such a fast time so early in the season is a good omen for the South African star, who has been hard at work during the off-season training at his American base in Florida.
He seems to have shrugged off his injury issues from recent seasons, and is setting his sights on the world championships, which take place in Budapest in August.
Van Niekerk may still run a few more races in South Africa over the next few weeks, with ASA Grand Prix events scheduled for April 12, 19 and 26. “I’m not sure yet. I will make a call after today and see how it goes. Hopefully God will carry me through and more and more opportunities come, and I stay healthy and keep growing,” he said on Saturday.
But he said in a recent interview on the Olympics.com website that “breaking the record and going sub-43 is the next step in the 400m, and that would be the natural move for me when it comes to growth”, and that could come later during the international season.
There were a number of other excellent performances on the final day of the national championships yesterday, with a South African record coming in the women’s hammer throw, where Leandri Geel pulled out a 65.18m effort to break the previous mark of 64.60m, set by Marga Cumming in 2021.
Cumming had to settle for the silver medal with 60.60m this time around.
Zeney van der Walt powered to a world qualifying time of 54.82 to clinch the 400m hurdles title, while Sokwakhana Zazini was impressive in claiming the men’s gold in 48.95.
Miranda Coetzee also had a special Saturday, doing the 200m-400m double within 90 minutes of each other. She said she was feeling it in her legs after claiming the one-lap gold in a new personal best of 51.04, but she followed it up with another PB of 22.74 in the 200m.
In a tight men’s long jump competition, Cheswill Johnson took the honours with a leap of 7.95m, ahead of Temoso Masikane (7.89m), Nikithemba Hani (7.88m), Ruswahl Samaai (7.80m) and Zarck Visser (7.73m).
In the 1 500m final, 800m star Tshepo Tshite timed his break over the rest of the field to perfection to win in 3:38.63 in an entertaining race, while the men’s hammer throw was another exciting shoot-out between Tshepang Makhethe and Alan Cumming, and this time Makhethe was triumphant with 69.42m over Cumming’s 68.03m.