Aside from fictional characters like Flash Gordon or Superman (even that’s open to debate!), there are very few who can outrun or even match the speed of South Africa’s biggest athletic sensation of the decade, Wayde van Niekerk.

If you’ve been living in a monastery in Putsonderwater for the past six months, chances are you’ve probably never heard of (or celebrated in!) the success of South African Olympic 400 m gold medalist, Wayde van Niekerk.

From a humble life in Bellville, Cape Town, Wayde shot to instant stardom (literally overnight) when on that fateful evening on 14 August 2016, he became the fastest man in the world across 400 metres.

It was a memorable night for South Africans. Van Niekerk cut American speedster, Michael Johnson’s record to ribbons from 43.18 down to 43.03 during the 2016 Rio Olympics in Brazil.

Not only did the 25-year old Van Niekerk win his first Olympic gold medal, he also became the first person to win an Olympic 400 m title fr om lane eight, essentially ‘running blind’. A few months later, he was named Best Male Athlete of the Rio 2016 Olympics during the ceremony in Doha.

A staunch Christian, Van Niekerk was schooled at the prestigious Grey College in Bloemfontein and went on to study marketing at the University of Free State before returning to Cape Town to pursue a career in athletics.

Van Niekerk attributes a lot of his success to ‘Tannie’ Ans Botha, a 74-year old great-grandmother who has been coaching track and field since the 1960s. She started coaching van Niekerk in 2012 after he completed his studies in the Free State. Since Botha has been his coach, Van Niekerk’s sprint time dropped by a whopping four seconds.

“I give my coach full credit for sharpening me up on those last 100 metres,” Van Niekerk said, who started his track and field career as a high jumper. “I thank her so much for believing in me and showing trust in my ability. It made it easy for me to go out there and give my best performance.”

Van Niekerk also shares a special friendship with arguably the world’s greatest track athlete, Usain Bolt. The pair currently hold the 100 m, 200 m and 400 m world records between them. Bolt won the 100 m title in Rio in 9.81 seconds. Moments after clinching his third strai ght Olympic gold medal, Bolt went over to congratulate Van Niekerk on his victory.

“He’s been such a huge rock in inspiring me as an athlete,” Van Niekerk said about Bolt. After that historic evening at Rio last year, Bolt offered the tantalising prospect of bowing out from international competition with a showdown against Van Niekerk, suggesting he would be keen to race the South African over 300 m.

QUICK-FIRE Q&A WITH WAYDE VAN NIEKERK

Being an international superstar, Van Niekerk’s time is limited. However, we managed to pin him down for a quick Q&A session. This is what he had to say:

Being an Olympic gold medalist, what does this achievement mean to you personally?
WvN: I don’t think one can describe the feeling in words. I’m just so grateful for the blessings that came my way. It has given me so much more motivation to want to improve myself and it played
a massive role in my confidence. Through this performance, I’ve felt like I’ve achieved the biggest milestone in my field of sport. I can also attribute my success to the incredible and inspirational people I’ve met along the way. I’ll always cherish that experience.

Do you have any advice for aspiring athletes?
WvN: My biggest piece of advice for aspiring athletes is to grow yourself spiritually and just to be real to yourself. If you know what’s wrong and right in life, stick to those fundamentals. Build a positive environment around you and that’s when everything positive will come your way, slowly but
surely.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
WvN: To be honest, I haven’t given it that much thought. I’m just enjoying these moments of my current success and career. I’ll always be involved in athletics. While I’ve always wanted to be a Seven’s rugby or football player (laughs), God chose track and field for me. Everything’s been going so well. But who knows? Maybe God opens new doors for me in the future…

If you weren’t an athlete, what would you be?
WvN: Definitely a football player…

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