Record breaking track superstar Wayde van Niekerk speaks to FISU about how the Summer Universiade catapulted him into the big league
Now a globally-recognised star, Wayde van Niekerk catapulted to prominence following his incredible 43.03-second 400-meter run at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games that broke Michael Johnson’s 17-year record, as he set the fastest time in the race’s history. But did you know that South African sensation Wayde van Niekerk was a student-athlete himself, and - quite incredibly - had failed to make the final of the 400m event at the Kazan 2013 Summer Universiade?
Born prematurely in the outskirts of Cape Town 27 years ago, Van Niekerk overcame his false start in life by channeling his natural running talent on the track, rising through the ranks as a junior sprinter before his breakout season in 2013, the same year as the Universiade. After finishing fourth in the semi-final and missing the individual 400m final, Van Niekerk made up for the disappointment with a superb showing in the 4x400m relay, that helped South Africa claim bronze. That bronze in the Kazan Universiade was the first international medal of his now glittering career. From there he went on to claim Commonwealth silver in the 400m event at Glasgow 2014 and then gold in the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, before powering to the record-breaking gold in Brazil.
Van Niekerk's career then hit an unexpected hurdle after he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury while participating in a celebrity touch-rugby match in 2017, ruling him out for the entire 2018 season.
Now slowly regaining full fitness, the reserved, soft-spoken and media-shy icon speaks to FISU U-Media reporter Fabio Di Dominicis and reflects on his student-athlete days, describing how Kazan 2013 provided the springboard for his illustrious career.
FISU: Taking it back to the Kazan 2013 Summer Universiade, what frame of mind were you in at the time of the Games? It was just before your breakout season and you had been doing really well at junior level. Were you excited, and did you enter the competition with a specific goal in mind?
Back then I was still quite young, and I was just enjoying the fact that I was seeing new places, visiting new countries and meeting new people, so that was a big part of the experience. But being a youngster, I was extremely ambitious and wanted to do well from day one. As humans we are very competitive beings; you want to win, you want to make finals and you want to represent the country to your fullest. Kazan definitely laid a massive platform for me for my upcoming years as I ran some competitive times in races that boosted me for the upcoming season in 2014. So, it was a massive platform for me in terms of confidence and being able to compete.
After narrowly missing out on the 400m final, you were then part of the 4x400m relay team that won bronze as you earned your first international medal. Describe that feeling for us.
It was amazing! I believe I contributed quite a lot that day to get that medal, and it was a massive, massive boost for myself, knowing that I was capable of pulling that out of the hat and putting out that type of performance after such a disappointing championship for myself. I wanted to do great and compete against those top guys the way I did. It was a massive moment for me and definitely contributed to my confidence quite a bit.
What was your take on the level of competition at the Summer Universiade?
It was of a very high standard – at any international event, the athletes are the best at that moment, and you’re the best in your country. Even though it’s at university level, it is very, very competitive. Many of these students end up becoming professional athletes as well, so it’s a great platform. Back then for the level I was at, it was needed … it was something I needed and something I enjoyed experiencing which then played a massive role in me achieving my goal. It’s something I’m really grateful for, the fact that I was able to compete internationally – anything on the international stage at that level of competition is really good so I was grateful from day one, and it definitely helped me.
Off the track and onto the social side of the competition, which included meeting numerous student athletes from other countries, how was the atmosphere at the Games and the Universiade Village? Any memorable moments or stories to share?
I’m unfortunately a very shy person, so it takes me a while to interact with others. But the people I did spend time with, the likes of (fellow South African athletes) Akani Simbine (Olympic sprinter) and Ruswahl Samaai (Olympic long jumper), these are the Games that played a massive role in our friendship today. We ended up sharing rooms together and sharing so many memorable moments together that I guess we now inspire and motivate each other. I remember during those Games we all went through quite a bit of individual disappointment but look where we are today! So, the Games helped us bond a lot as friends, and so I don’t take it for granted or take it lightly. Socially the Games are amazing as they allow you to climb out of your shell and see life from really different perspectives.
How difficult was it being a student athlete, and balancing your training with studying?
Unfortunately, I could not finish my studies as my athletics continued going from strength to strength, and it became a bit draining and tiring for me. I was never around long enough to finish my semester or my student year before then going off to compete at a professional level. I had to make a decision, and I decided to stick with track. I’m very grateful for that and hopefully in the future I can get back to getting my degree.
Your career has grown in leaps and bounds since, the pinnacle obviously being the Olympics. You’ve no doubt been asked this question numerous times, but now, looking back almost three years later, what is the most memorable experience or feeling of your record-breaking 400m sprint that day?
What stands out for me is being able to use my family as a symbol of unity and getting them all there to experience that moment with me. At the beginning you don’t think you’re going to reach record-breaking moments and achievements, but that moment was really God-given, having all my family there and getting to all experience that moment together. It then became a great moment for my entire country, and my little family and I were able to really enjoy that moment together. That’s massive for me. I am simply running and doing what I love and achieving great things in something that I work on every day, ends up uniting an entire country, a country that I really love and enjoy being part of … it’s crazy to think I contributed in such a massive way.
Your freak injury in the celebrity rugby match obviously derailed plans thereafter ... what was going through your mind after finding out the extent of the injury?
It was a difficult first few weeks, but for me it was just about trying to get back to where I needed be as soon as possible. But I accepted my reality and started working towards where I wanted to be and what I pictured for myself in the future. And that’s where I’m at right now, seeing what’s needed and what needs to be invested to ensure that I achieve what I want to achieve in the upcoming years.
Following the injury, how are preparations going, and what is your target this season?
At the moment I’m just focused on starting up and getting fit again, so that’s my main priority right now. I haven’t committed to anything just yet – I’m just listening to my body and when my body is ready, I will go out and give it my all.
Away from the track, you are regarded as a humble athlete with a charming personality. What has kept you so grounded?
This is what I stand for and who I am, and it’s really what makes me tick. What makes me go forward in life is this attitude. I feel most comfortable, and to me it’s about being as authentic as possible, and not trying to be someone I’m not. I’m really grateful that people like me and are happy with who I am, and it gives me even more reasons to continue being me and enjoy the experiences that come with it.
What would you say is your motivation and inspiration in doing what you love?
My motivation and inspiration is definitely the fact that I’ve been blessed with a natural, God-given talent that not just anyone has, and it makes me want to reap and master it as best as I can.
Have you given much thought to your post-career days?
After my career, I think opportunities will be endless. I’m a big dreamer and have so many dreams and desires. I’d like to invest in after track and field, but I haven’t really set my heart on anything just yet. I enjoy the creative sphere, I enjoy sports, I enjoy helping others and giving back and so on, so I guess I will try to invest a bit in all those areas and who knows, maybe as I end my career, new opportunities may come my way and touch my heart, and I may invest in those as well.
Finally, any last message for all the student athletes out there?
My message is for you to go out there and enjoy yourselves, and not be too hard on yourself. You’re still young, you’ve got so much awaiting you, just enjoy the people around you. Interact, communicate with one another, learn about other cultures and countries, and just enjoy it. Don’t set too high expectations for yourself as you’ve still got your whole life to live.
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