World 400m record-holder Wayde van Niekerk may have made a low-key return after nearly a year-and-a-half out of the sport due to a knee injury.
World 100m champion Justin Gatlin last year compared Van Niekerk to a gazelle, referring to the South African track superstar’s running style as “poetry in motion”.
Van Niekerk’s return at the Free State Championships last weekend, where he clocked 47.28 seconds, may have been more pony than racehorse compared to his 43.03 world-record time, and it is hardly a good indication of his true form.
The 26-year-old track sensation this week said while it was still early days in his comeback, there were flashes of the athlete that has wowed athletics fans over the last four years.
“The people I’ve been working with, my team in Doha and in Bloem have been analysing and they see the old Wayde running stride coming back,” Van Niekerk said.
“That is positive for me to hear, knowing I am back to the stride, the form and the technique that I want and that I haven’t lost anything like that.
“That is a positive to me because now I just need to work on my strength and my technique and that is a massive plus for myself.”
While Van Niekerk effectively has to learn to crawl, walk and run before he can smash records on the international stage, it has done little to stop Wayde the dreamer.
Van Niekerk’s dreams have always been audacious and it would be silly to discount them despite the seriousness of his injury and the amount of self-doubt it could have instilled.
Before a tag rugby match altered his path, Van Niekerk was considered a possible heir to the world throne of athletics. He has embraced the title as the poster boy for athletics and the fall seemed to have emboldened him in his pursuit of greatness.
“To me, I see it more as a motivation, I mean for us as South African athletes when have we ever imagined we would have a South African poster boy in international athletics?” Van Niekerk said.
“That alone was a massive motivation for me and to step up. Nothing has changed, I continuously want to step up and improve myself as an athlete.
“If that leads to me being a poster boy then that is great, it is amazing and a privilege to represent the sport I love.”
Van Niekerk has relied on his Christian faith to exorcise the demons of self-doubt and while he battled with the physical pain, he said he never questioned whether he would be back on the track.
“I won’t say there were moments that there wouldn’t be a comeback, it was more of regret and the doubts were more of physical pain,” Van Niekerk said.
“But I think I quickly swept that under the carpet, and I went into a spiritual and Bible-based mentality and the period which really helped me a lot to stay positive from the moment I came out of surgery.”
Van Niekerk’s love for the shorter sprint distances has suffered because of the injury but it has sharpened his focus on becoming the first man in history to break through the 43-second barrier over 400 metres.
Before Van Niekerk suffered a career-threatening knee injury he was making spectacular strides in the 100m and 200m events.
“We are basically leaning towards the 400m, I think I want to seal the 42, that is where my mind is at and my heart is at,” Van Niekerk said.
“I want to focus and invest properly and get that 42, then I can get back to what I really want to do which is the 100m and 200m.”
Van Niekerk’s season opener in Bloem is more than four seconds away from the majestic sub-43 but one should not bet against South Africa’s gliding gazelle.@ockertde