Wayde van Niekerk’s gold-winning and record-setting sprint at the Rio Olympics on Monday, which saw him become the first sprinter to win a gold medal for South Africa in almost a century, was a culmination of the determination and hard work he’s put in since he was seven, his first athletics coach says.
Wayde, 24, broke a 17-year-old record by former American track star Michael Johnson, when he burst to victory at a record 43.03 seconds on Monday at 3am (GMT), prompting a stunned reaction from the fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt, who went over to congratulate him after his win.
Earlier this year, Wayde clocked in at 9.98 seconds for the 100m and became the first athlete to run under 10 seconds for the 100m, 20 seconds for the 200m and 44 seconds for 400m in Bloemfontein. He became the first man to win a gold medal running in the eighth lane. On Saturday, running in the heats, Wayde had clocked in at 45.26 seconds for the 400m.
After a late-night marking session at the weekend, Ashley Field, Wayde’s first trainer at Simonsberg Primary School, had been drifting in and out of sleep on his couch at his Bellville home that morning, awaiting the televised action.
But he was wide awake when his former protégé took his position in the eighth lane, considered a difficult starting place in the 400m track.
“I’m on a high here. It’s unbelievable,” Mr Field told the Northern News after Wayde charged into the history books. He also coached Wayde’s cousin, Cheslin Kolbe, who won a bronze medal in Rio with the SA Sevens.
During his time at Simonsberg, Mr Field, who is now at Excelsior Primary School in Bellville, oversaw most of the sporting codes. Wayde caught his attention, because the seven-year-old was also the first to rock up for training at 7am at the sports-mad school.
Clearly overwhelmed, Mr Field heaped lavish praise on the new world record-holder.
“I coached him for four years and I could tell he would go on to make something of his name in athletics,” he said.
“He was just brilliant. He was a quick learner and never struggled. He knew the drills, and you never taught him twice.”
Mr Field recalled how Wayde was already a national champion by the age of 10. He was his coach at provincial level during that period.
“He never let the school or the province down on the track and was a humble child.”
That much was visible when Wayde celebrated his win on Monday, stopping to catch his breath before shaking hands with other athletes.
Odessa Swarts, speaking to Heart FM’s breakfast show early on Monday, said the family was grateful to South Africans who stayed up to watch her son. She said she had been “in the clouds” after the race.
“That emotion is still running very high. (Wayde) was joking to us about the emotions and everything that went down in the race.”
She said Wayde’s coach, Ans Botha, 74, had told the family that he had been at his fittest and most consistent prior to the race. Ms Swarts said Usain had told Wayde he had had a good race.
“We showed him Usain Bolt’s reaction on Twitter, and we were laughing about that,” she said.
Back at home, Wayde’s cousin, Lorenzo de Vos, had also stayed up and even recorded the race for the family’s archives. “The entire family was all awake watching the race, and you can imagine we’re excited and filled with emotion because it’s a very big achievement.”
Scottsville residents were up at 3am to watch the race or listen on the radio. Franco Pekewor, a friend of Wayne van Niekerk, Wayde’s father, said he had listened on the radio and that Scottsville had been talking about the race since the heats started at the weekend.
“Everyone was talking about the race before it took place. The anticipation was immense. I couldn’t miss it. I stayed up to see Wayde,” he said.
A beaming Debra Nicholas, who lives a stone’s throw away from Wayde’s grandparents’ home, said the whole of Scottsville had been made proud. “We watched him today and in the heats (on Saturday). I’m glad I witnessed a record today. I’m sure his parents are proud.” She said it was not every day that someone from the area made world headlines for an achievement.
Resident Rochelle Williams said she was particularly impressed by that moment when Usain Bolt snubbed journalists after his win to go congratulate and hug Wayde. “That was lovely. The world must bow down to Wayde,” she said.
Stanley Benjamin said: “I stayed up because I knew he was the only one who would bring gold, and I wanted to see that moment live. Everyone else had been getting bronze medals. I don’t feel like I wasted my time and, surprisingly, I’m not tired, I’m excited.”