The 400m world record holder Wayde Van Niekerk said he was well prepared for the challenge brought by the pandemic. “I am blessed and privileged to have equipment around me and a gym setup at home. So I was well-prepared before even the pandemic… but you do miss the track but this pandemic is something we all have to face.”
In a way, the five-week government-imposed lockdown in South Africa was an extension of Van Niekerk’s own time away from the limelight, when he was already used to living and training indoors, consistently building on his physical and mental endurance.
The serious knee injury in 2017 that kept him away from the track had meant “a hibernation” of a different kind when he was steering himself for the next big competition returning to the field again in 2020.
‘Lockdown Meant Shifting Back To Hibernation To Train And Strengthen Myself’
This was also going to be the year he was going to defend his 400m world record at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“I came out of an injury, and it led to me entering a hibernation period of my life where a lot happened, internally, indoors, away from the TV screens,” says Van Niekerk in interview with FORBES from his home in Bloemfontein in South Africa’s Free State province, a day after the Sout Africa lifted the lockdown with Level 4 restrictions.
“As this year started, I had shifted my mentality to becoming an athlete again, and getting ready for the next major competition, and then Covid-19 started, and that led to me taking a step back and shift back to the hibernation stage of training and strengthening myself.
“What I have learned is to try and find that peace, that positivity and calm in this storm. It’s a mentality shift that I had to meditate on, that I build a positive foundation, that I reap every strength and positivity invested in me, that once I come out of the injury, I come out stronger. Now, I am making sure my physical and mental strength can complement one another”.
With the Tokyo 2020 Games now postponed owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, did it give him the gift of time?
“Not really. Every time is a blessing,” says Van Niekerk. “I prepared myself for that this year, but reality is what it is. And we can’t be dwelling on the losses… we can either see it as time lost or there is a goal I have set for myself, the way I am going to get it is not important. It doesn’t matter the platform it happens on, as long as it happens. I have been investing my time into it.”
“I find it difficult to focus on just me… I am very passionate about helping those around me. I am not a fan of wanting to do things that become a media event,” he says simply.
“We are going through this period to cleanse and strengthen ourselves… Forget about who you are, and see whose lives you can make easier. The people who are struggling now are the people who will give you the biggest smile and who will give you the confidence. And now it’s time for us as sports people and as human beings to find ways to consider those around us who are less fortunate and not as blessed as we are.
“There are a lot of technical things to it in terms of getting 100% race-fit for an international stage and trying to do some competitions; to just shake off that rust and to get the legs going and the body moving and the blood flowing again. There is a massive difference between a gym workout and being a track athlete. There will be a whole few months before we get to be at the level and shape where we can improve ourselves as athletes,” he says.
The ardent Mo Salah and Liverpool fan has also been engaging with his network of sports comrades around the world. Jamaican former sprinter Usain Bolt is a good friend. You ask if he has been in touch.
“I communicate with most, but more about the banter. He’s always teasing me about the Premier League not going to finish, so they keep trying to tap into that nerve of mine as I am a passionate Liverpool supporter. So I am trying not to entertain that side of them,” laughs Van Niekerk.
As a child, Van Niekerk dreamed of becoming the fastest man in the world. It’s a dream that still keeps the speedster going.
“It is what I have been investing in ever since I was young, and what I want to achieve. With the barriers I broke came confidence, and why not believe in what I can achieve? I am invested 110% to want to improve the 100m, 200m and up to 400m, and I am more hungry and determined than ever before!”