Interview by Louis Holtzhausen MD, PhD and Juan-Manuel Alonso MD, PhD
Category: Interview

Volume 13 | Targeted Topic - Sports Medicine in Athletics | 2024
Volume 13 - Targeted Topic - Sports Medicine in Athletics

Wayde van Niekerk has an impressive athletic career. He is one of the few runners that is writing the history of athletics in his event—the 400 m: one-time Olympic Champion (Rio 2016), two times World Champion (Beijing 2015 and London 2017), two times African Champion, and current 400 m world record holder. He is so talented that he was the first athlete in history to break the 10-second (100m), 20-second (200m), 31-second (300m) as well as the 44-second (400m) barriers.
But everything changed for the worse in October 2017; Wayde suffered career-changing and potentially career-ending knee injuries in a charity touch rugby match.
Born two months premature and weighing no more than one kg in Cape Town, South Africa on 15th July 1992, he was a small and skinny boy. But little Wayde survived and grew to become the world's leading sprinter. Wayde was deeply motivated by his mother Odessa's brilliance as a sprinter before his birth – back in the apartheid era when Black athletes were unable to shine on the biggest stage. With this legacy, Wayde's sense of honour shines through in his story: how he stands up for the weak against bullies and gives generously to those less fortunate than himself.
And yet, despite of all this adversities, Van Niekerk's Olympic prowess came through out of the blue during the World Championships in Beijing in 2015, when he gained his first World Championship title. In his difficult journey to success, a humble lady played a fundamental role: his 81-year-old former coach, Ans Botha (Wayde is coached by Lance Brauman since 2021), who helped him get to the very top. Ans Botha guided Wayde since summer 2012 when they met at the Athletics Track of the Free State University in Bloemfontein, South Africa, and young Wayde asked "Tannie Ans" (“Auntie Ans”) to coach him. Tannie Ans became his mentor and coach, and the rest is history.
In this way, that tiny, skinny boy who time and again defied the odds, became Olympic Champion and World record holder in 2016. Then the 2017 knee injury almost ruined his athletic career. The World Athletics community eagerly followed his progress and setbacks, wondering about his potential comeback for 5 long years. Fortunately for Wayde and for track fans all over the world, the South African’s faith, courage, and dedication – along with his magnificent talent – kept him going. And then, in 2023 Wayde was able to present himself again onto the international stage, being able to win world-class 400m races again. May this legendary athlete go from strength to strength.

Which attributes and qualities contributed most to your success as an athlete?
Things that played a massive role in my success has definitely been my faith, my family and support structures. I think I have always been given this gift and blessing that I definitely never wanted to take for granted. Having great support structure around me, and a family that allowed me to dream big really helped me express myself on the track that really helped me to go from strength to strength and help me grow a lot in sports I would really give a big shout out to my support structures.

Tell us a bit about the long road to recovery – what did you learn that you could share with other athletes? What was the toughest thing?
Something that really stuck with me during the recovery process back from injury was how mentally challenging it will be and how important it is for you to actually invest in what mentally keeps you motivated; what mentally keeps you happy; what mentally still helps you to enjoy things and making you want to do what you do and love what you do. The mental aspect of it was extremely difficult because it becomes a real rollercoaster of back and forth with injuries and niggles that continuously happens during the process of coming back – because you are constantly pushing yourself to the limits and to places and spaces that you never really thought you need to when you are healthy. You really take your health for granted and then when you come back from injury you experience this rollercoaster of setbacks. Then I think you must be very cognitive of what mental space you are in and in what areas you need to be heard, work with, and speak to people about. I think athletes really take that for granted when they are healthy.

Where did you find the strength to come back to world class level athletics after six years of struggling?
I think I found my biggest strength to keep working and working for six years is simply the fact that I am blessed; the fact that I have got this talent which I am really grateful for, and I really don’t want to waste. The fact is that I have this (relatively short) period as an athlete and as a sportsperson to reap from a physical gift that was given to me freely. That is a massive motivation to why I am still going.

What do you do nowadays to keep safe, to reduce the risk of injury?
You really have to listen to your body to reduce the chance of getting hurt and injured but at the same time this is such a fine line as a professional athlete. You become extremely stubborn, and you become extremely hardheaded because it’s limits you want push, barriers you want to break and records you want break. Trying to push physically is in our DNA as an athlete and sports people, but I think it’s really important just to stay focused and listen to your body. When your body needs rest, keep it in rest; when your body can push it, allow yourself to push it. But it is really a tussle – it’s something that I guess I still have to figure out.

Professional track athletes travel a lot to compete. How do you try to cope with jet lag & travel fatigue?
 Yes, travelling is actually one of my weaknesses as an athlete. I really don’t enjoy it. I don’t think I really cope with it but I know that is a job that needs to be done and we have responsibilities as athletes to perform and make those sacrifices, but travelling has never been my best friend.

Track and field athletics is seeing a revolution on performances thanks you the carbon fiber plate shoes. Event rankings from 800 m up are being rewritten. It is not the case of 400 m. What would be the reasons?
I believe that your equipment is really just a tool to help you achieve your dreams. I broke the record with non- carbon-fibre fire spikes – I am not even sure if it did have it. I was never really phased by the equipment, to me the equipment is a feel-good thing to have and to make our life easier. I don’t like thinking about the technical things too much. I think once you put in the hard work and you do what needs to be done away from competitions then the chances of performing big and doing great things are higher, so to me. It is really just about staying focused on what work needs to be done and seeing what rewards come with it.

The 400 m is one of the toughest events on the track and field Olympic program. How do you prepare yourself mentally for that terrific home stretch?
In the 400 meters it is I think it is purely just the toughest and the strongest athletes that will come out at the top. The home stretch is something that every 400-meter athlete hates – you will get one or two athletes that do, it but I am one of the many that don’t enjoy it. To me it is really just about putting in the hard work and seeing rewards come from it.

World Athletics changed the classification system for Major events. Now, you guys, need to get points in the ranking to qualify. That means you need to race and compete more. How do you see this change?
Racing and competing is part of the game. It is what you need to do to gain fitness, so I am not against it at all. For me at this stage it is important to really listen to my body, listen to where I can invest my energy and where I can’t.  I am at the stage of my career where I really want to race and I really want to put in the hard work to continuously grow.  This might be seen as the latter stage of my career so racing is a healthy thing for me, but I think it is very important to do under a microscope of looking after yourself and making sure you are making healthy decisions and choosing healthy races. Then there is no harm in competing.

Do you have a message for young, aspiring athletes? What is the key ingredient for achieving success?
I think my best message for young athletes coming through and talents coming through is to make sure you love the sport; make sure you love whatever sport you want to do – even non-sports-related events. If you love it nobody will need to wake you up in the morning. You will always be ready, you will always be motivated and determined. So I think seek the love in what you want to do and the growth will come.

How important is your medical team in your preparation and in your career?
My medical team plays a massive role in my career. I found that Aspetar played a massive role in my road to recovery and back to competition.   The environment was amazing. It was the top of the range, and everyone was always ready to see me improve and grow. The mentalities were always a high-performance mentality. As an (injured) athlete you are feeling very doubtful and insecure, but the environment really helped me believe that I can get back to competing again – and not just competing, but at the top level and to be the best that I can be.  I really have to take a moment to thank Aspetar for their contribution to getting me back to competing again.

Louis Holtzhausen MD, PhD and 
Juan-Manuel Alonso MD, PhD


Volume 13 | Targeted Topic - Sports Medicine in Athletics | 2024
Volume 13 - Targeted Topic - Sports Medicine in Athletics

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