When he sits down for this interview, Wayde van Niekerk is a walking billboard for the soul-searching that seems to have taken over his life in recent times. The tops of his sponsored running shoes have the words “heart” and “mind” prominently inscribed on them. And the words “quiet storm” appear on his top, rounding off the evidence of the introspection that appears to be ongoing.
In her take on probably the oldest philosophical debate in history – that of the heart against the mind and how they almost reluctantly work together – author Alyson Noel is quoted as saying: “The heart and mind aren’t always friendly. And in my case, they are barely speaking.”
Given that an injury has kept the world 400m record holder off the track for the past two years, his heart and mind may well have engaged in a full-on slanging match as he probably flitted between feeling sorry for himself and talking himself off the ledge. This would go some way towards explaining the need to draw a line under that rumination and look to the future with the words quiet storm, an ominous phrase that has become a hashtag on his social media posts documenting his comeback.
Van Niekerk was recently revealed as the South African team captain for health insurer Discovery’s Vitality Running World Cup. The Olympic champion was also cementing his second return from the knee injury that has kept him off the track since the end of 2017 around this time, winning the 400m at the Free State provincial championships in early March.
A year ago, it seemed Van Niekerk was on the verge of resuming his unprecedented, record-breaking career by making a successful return from the torn meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament injury he sustained in a celebrity touch rugby game.
Injury after injury
But the 27-year-old’s second coming was cut short by a bruising of the bone in the same knee. It was as broad a hint that the joint wasn’t ready as it was a sign that the notoriously driven athlete was looking for too much by way of recovery gains. He spent another year sitting on the sidelines when he should have been defending his world 400m title at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha.
For someone as surprisingly addled, intense and burdened with expectation as Van Niekerk, this would have been torture regardless of the fact that he got married, spent more time with family and played as much PlayStation as he wanted.
When asked if the cues on his apparel are reminders to remain positive or if it’s just the way he’s dressed today, Van Niekerk downplays them. But it’s obvious that he requested they be put there.
“It’s a bit of both,” he says. “Obviously you want to be exposed to an energy that will keep a positive environment around you. It was a coincidence that it’s been highlighted today, but it is something that I own and something I take to mind.
“I think what stuck with me the entire last few years was trying to find that peace within your chaos … I had to seek that peace to keep myself sane and stick to what I could control.”
The idea of finding peace in the eye of a storm – quiet or otherwise – reinforces the idea that the devout Christian’s soft-spokenness and calm demeanour mask the fact that he can be a complex character riddled with doubt like the rest of us.
His patience tested
Van Niekerk is famous for being the only man to win Olympic gold and set a world record (43:03) from lane eight at the Rio Olympics in 2016. And for being the only man to run the 100m in under 10 seconds, the 200m in under 20 seconds and the 400m in under 44 seconds.
Yet you get the impression that the little men on his shoulders are still at each other’s throats, clouding his thinking. “That roller coaster will never end. I kept reflecting back to the process even before the world records, being a competitive athlete, or even being among the world’s best.
“I still had that roller coaster of ‘I can do it, I can’t do it. I can do it, I can’t do it’. But I endured, kept pushing and giving it my all, and look where I’ve come. I feel like I just need to stick to the same principle of enduring, pushing, not giving up and not quitting.
“Last year was a bit of a challenge because a lot of times you say within a year, you’ll start feeling good. With me being so competitive, I’m always trying to find gains and with an injury like this you can’t always get gains when you want.
“So I had to humble myself and build a lot of patience in terms of allowing my body to heal the way it wanted to. It’s a year later and I’m starting to feel more confident in my body and starting to feel as if I can race against the best in the world again.”
His body seems to agree, if his tentative races so far this season are anything to go by. By the time the Covid-19 pandemic brought the new athletics season to a halt, Van Niekerk had snuck in two 100m races, a 200m and two more gallops at his more recognised 400m event and the 800m.
His times were a sign of how keen his body was to go. He ran the two short sprints in 10.20s (hand-timed on grass) and 10.10s, and the half-lap in 20.31s. His 400m result was a more cautious 47.42s as he ran in the rain.
“The speed part is definitely there. I need to work a bit on the endurance. I hated running the 800m, I didn’t enjoy it at all, but I needed to get that feeling back. But I believe it’s more mental than physical, I just need to get my body to test those limits again.”
The postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games to next year amid the global coronavirus pandemic favours Van Niekerk as he’ll have more time to get back to his best form. Unwilling to put himself under undue pressure by making his goals public while the Games loomed large, he is more forthright now that they are once again more than a year away.
“I was under pressure since I started athletics,” he says. “It’s part of the game, it’s not something that ever goes away. In the past, I probably put way more pressure on myself and was probably way nervier that I am.
“Today I have learnt to accept it more, but it’s never gone away since I was a kid. I’ve worked hard to be in the position I’m in today so I’m not going to scare away from it. I know where I want to be and if that comes with pressure, I have to deal with it as many other sportspeople have to.”
Going to Tokyo as an underdog
Michael Johnson, the man whose world record Van Niekerk obliterated in Brazil in 2016, had expressed doubts about his successor’s competitiveness so soon after injury, making the defending champion somewhat of an underdog.
But having now been gifted the time to recover and train fully, this should no longer be the case come the Olympics in 2021. If it is though, this is Van Niekerk’s comfort zone. He has been fighting the odds since he needed a blood transfusion to tide him over in his first few days on the planet, having been born two months premature and weighing just 1kg. So if anyone is comfortable with being an underdog, it is Van Niekerk.
“I think the reality for us as South Africans is that we’ll always be underdogs, whether we like it or not. I won the World Champs in 2015 and the camera wasn’t even focused on me at the Olympics the next year,” he says.
“It’s us, let’s be honest, that’s who we are. But it’s a reality that doesn’t faze me. I’ve always been seen as the guy that probably won’t win, but look at what I’ve achieved. I’ve never entered a race hoping to be a favourite. I race to win races, gold medals and, now that I’ve tasted a world record, to break world records.”
Favourite or not, given what he’s already achieved, Van Niekerk could retire a legend. But it sounds like he still has big plans for the post-injury half of his career.
“I want pure growth,” he says. “I want to grow in every event, for myself as an athlete. The 400m, I believe I need to break the record again. And I’ve got so much unfinished business in the 100m and 200m that I would love to get to before I retire.”
Quiet storm brewing?