Supercoach Ans Botha says athletics saved her

The world-renowned coach, who turns 80 next year, talks about what keeps her young, her legacy and how athletics came to her rescue following the loss of her son and husband.

As her protégé glides effortlessly around the Bellinzona track, “Tannie” Ans Botha watches pensively, and in awe of the immense talent she has had the privilege to mould and nurture. Wayde van Niekerk’s one-lap trot around the Swiss track in September marked his first international race in three years. 

His return to the track represented a final sigh of relief after the emotional ebb and flow that accompanied his recovery from a career-threatening injury in 2017. 

“That evening in Bellinzona, I stood next to that track, and my whole body was covered in goosebumps, and I just thought to myself ‘what have I done to be so privileged to work with so much God-given talent?’” Botha said with a tinge of emotion in her voice. 

The winning time of 45.58 seconds was nothing short of remarkable. He had just come out of a 25-day quarantine after testing positive for Covid-19, and he only had four training sessions before the race. The time is almost two-and-a-half seconds slower than his world record of 43.03s, yet it again highlighted his raw athletic ability.

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“Every day [since his injury] was difficult for me, and I shed a lot of tears for my child who got hurt so badly,” Botha says. “All my athletes are like my own children, and when a child goes through a difficult time, a mother hurts. You would rather take that burden upon yourself, and you would rather take the pain and the disappointment on yourself.”

Now that her star athlete is back to full strength, Botha hopes to cap her illustrious career with another Olympic gold medal and a world record before she turns 80 in December 2021. “I still have a passion for what I do till this day. I hope and pray that the dear Lord spares me, and if it is His will, I will still be active in coaching next year to guide my athletes and accompany them to the Olympic Games.”

Botha’s achievements with Van Niekerk over the last eight years have elevated her to a class of her own, not only in South Africa but also on a global scale. She is also one of the oldest active sporting coaches in the world.

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Botha and Van Niekerk’s successes and failures are intrinsically linked. The duo racked up a laundry list of accolades in less than a decade. For the sake of brevity, we will stick with the global achievements.

Van Niekerk is, of course, the 400m world record holder, double world champion and defending Olympic champion in his pet one-lap event.

Van Niekerk fell painstakingly short of a 200-400m double gold at the 2017 London World Championships but still clinched the silver in the half-lap sprint and successfully defended his 400m title. In the build-up to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Van Niekerk realised a life-long dream by breaking through the magical 10-second barrier in the 100m for the first time, clocking 9.98. In the process, he became the first athlete to produce sub-10, sub-20 and sub-44 performances in the 100m, 200m and 400m respectively.

Botha was instrumental in every magical step Van Niekerk made towards achieving sporting immortality, which elevates her into unrivalled coaching territory. When asked about the legacy she would like to leave behind, Botha says she hopes young girls and women will see themselves in her. 

“If I had inspired or influenced just one young person, girl, or woman, to live out their passion and love and through that help other people then I would have achieved a lot. I was so blessed to have a husband who supported me and gave me the time and the opportunity. I started with my children, and he was supportive up until the day of his death and interested in my athletes.”

How Botha rose to the top 

Elite sports coaching has traditionally been considered an exclusive playground reserved for men, with women like Botha considered outliers. While Botha admits she had not given her success in a “man’s world” much thought, it is perhaps her indifference that made her rise to the top. 

“You know what, I’ve never thought of it in that way, throughout my coaching years, and this year it has been 52 years,” she says. “But I’ve never experienced problems, negativity or anything of the sorts. The reason could be that I was too stubborn to notice, but I never had any opposition from my male counterparts. I just did what I loved and lived out my passion.”

Botha has undoubtedly had an impact on countless young lives in her coaching career. And in the process, she has become the standard-bearer for women’s coaching in South Africa. The great-grandmother is the first and only South African woman coach to produce a world champion in track and field. Her achievements are unmatched among both male and female coaches in South Africa.

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Botha started coaching in her native Namibia in 1968, a year before NASA put a man on the moon. Serving as a testament to her persistence, Botha had to wait nearly five decades for her moon shot when her protégé obliterated one of track and field’s longest-standing records. 

Athletics not only provided Botha with moments of euphoria at the side of the track, but also served as salvation during times of despair. Throwing herself into her coaching helped Botha cope with the deaths of her son Hennie in 1993 and husband Nico seven years later.

“When I look back today, athletics was my salvation, after the death of my son and the passing of my husband. I have the incredible privilege – at this stage of my life – to work with young people who keep me on my toes. I get to use my brain by working out programmes and doing the planning. I need to know when my athletes need to be at their best and ensure they are ready for this or that meeting and perform at the same time.”

The making of an Olympian legend 

Botha had been coaching for nearly 50 years when Van Niekerk crossed her path, the talented youngster joining her group in Bloemfontein in 2012. A year later, the then 18-year-old Van Niekerk raced to his maiden senior 200m title in Durban. 

By the time the duo joined forces, Botha was already a septuagenarian unaware that the best was yet to come. But would she have continued coaching had she not taken on the prodigy? 

“I’ve always said that I would continue as long as I am healthy and as long as my athletes perform. Why should I go and sit at home? Why should I sit between these four walls and wait for death to take me? I live out my dreams by helping young people reach for their dreams and ideals. It is an incredible privilege to work with these children.”

The relationships Botha has with her athletes is mutually beneficial as she passes on her wisdom and helps them achieve their goals while they keep her young and fit. There is no greater delight, Botha says, than helping an athlete find their rhythm. Whether on the track or in life.

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“That child comes to me with a dream, an ideal. By coming to me, they immediately make me part of their dreams. Their dreams and plans also become my dreams and ideals. It is the biggest ‘payment’ when a child runs a race and comes to me, beaming, bright-eyed and says ‘Tannie, I ran my PB!’ 

“What more can a coach ask for? What can be more soul-enriching than boosting a child’s confidence and uplifting their humanity and giving them the confidence to say, ‘I can do even better?’”

Botha’s goodwill and soft demeanour do not give the athletes a blank cheque to do whatever they want. This counts for every athlete, from a first year to a world-record holder. “Look, if you want to upset me (‘as jy my die bliksem in wil hê’) then you make an appointment with me and turn up late. Punctuality is incredibly important to me,” Botha said.

It is the same discipline Botha instilled in Van Niekerk that helped catapult him to the highest levels of the sport. The next few months will be critical for Van Niekerk to build a strong foundation in the lead-up to the quadrennial showpiece in Tokyo.

When you ask what she would pick between another world record and second Olympic title, Botha answers with a playful tone in her voice: “Well, well… we have come close to sub-43, and we cannot remain stagnant, it is behind us. You have to set a new goal. Does that answer your question?”

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