South African Wayde van Niekerk‘s talent turned out to be sprinting — to become the fastest 400m runner in history at age 24 in 2016 — but when the opportunity came in 2017 to play tag rugby with the nation’s other champion athletes, he did not pass it up.
“As a young boy, wanting to do a bit of sports and playing a bit of rugby with the legends of the country and so on, as you know, the rich history of South African sports,” van Niekerk said in a recent interview. “I got that privilege to rub some shoulders with such greats.”
The likes of not only rugby players, but also cricketer JP Duminy and soccer player Benni McCarthy.
Van Niekerk, two months after taking 400m gold and 200m silver at the 2017 World Track and Field Championships, took his place alongside them on the pitch at the 51,900-capacity Newlands Stadium in Cape Town. The celebrity game was a curtain-raiser for a match between New Zealand’s and South Africa’s national teams.
Fourteen months earlier in the Rio Olympic final, van Niekerk authored the perfect race from lane eight: a 43.03-second lap to break Michael Johnson‘s world record from 1999. He took 163 steps, according to World Athletics. He was expected to spend the rest of the Tokyo Olympic cycle trying to break 43 seconds in the 400m and cementing himself as the world’s best 200m runner, too.
In the rugby match on Oct. 7, 2017, one misstep and a twisted knee changed the trajectory of his career.
“This whole injury was so innocuous,” said van Niekerk’s career-long agent, Peet van Zyl, who was in the stands that day. “He tried to side step a guy, and he just stopped and he sat down. He got up again, and he walked off the field. He just said, ‘Guys, I’m done. I don’t want to play any further. I think I’m a bit injured.’ He walked off the field and all that. It wasn’t the case of him being stretchered off or anything like that. I think we thought maybe he’s just done something. It’s not too bad.”
Van Niekerk said it was quite painful.
“But I think you somewhat try and fight against the thought of it, or kind of denying your reality at that moment, hoping that it’s nothing serious, hoping that it’s something you can bounce back from really quickly, that it’s a bit of a knock, a bit of a twist,” he said. “The reality was totally different to what I was hoping it to be.”
Van Niekerk left the stadium and went across the street to the Sports Science Institute of South Africa for scans. He was with his fiancee, Chesney, whom he married three weeks later, and his stepfather. A doctor delivered the findings: an ACL and meniscus tear.
“He thought, he’ll be fine. It’ll be ready within a few months. and he’ll be able to start running again,” van Zyl said. “I think the actual severity of it sank in a little bit later.”
Van Niekerk sought another opinion, but surgery was inevitable. After his wedding, he flew to Vail, Colorado, for the operation.
“With everything that happened, now I think how silly it was, exposing my body to something like that and then putting my body in somewhat of strain that it has never trained itself [for],” he said. “I mean, rugby is a sport that my body is not conditioned for. That’s where my mind goes toward when asked about it.”
Van Niekerk began breaking the news of such an unusual injury for a sprinter, and through such unusual circumstances, to those around him. The toughest conversation to initiate was with his coach, Ans Botha, whose fame also skyrocketed in Rio.
“First of all, she’s not a fan of us doing any sport, obviously, away from track and field,” van Niekerk said. “Which is right. Which is also the advice I was obviously supposed to follow.”
Van Zyl said Botha was “totally against” van Niekerk participating in the rugby match.
“I wasn’t keen for him to do it, but growing up as a boy in South Africa, rugby’s almost like a religion,” van Zyl said. “She was really, really livid [afterward].”
Still, van Niekerk had time. Three years until the Tokyo Olympics. Two years until the next world championships. Van Niekerk, who became the world’s top sprinter with Usain Bolt‘s retirement, had to learn how to walk again. He was on crutches for about three months.
“There was a lot of doubt that creeped in the process,” he said.
Van Niekerk didn’t race at all in 2018, track and field’s fallow year without an Olympics or biennial world championships.
The rehab went as planned. First in Vail, then in Doha. Van Niekerk trained to return for the South African Championships in April 2019. But the week before the competition, he learned he developed a bone bruise in that right knee.
“He really pushed himself a bit too hard in the week before nationals just to see really what he could do,” van Zyl said. “We decided to pull him out because we can’t afford him to race when he’s not 100 percent.”
Van Niekerk missed the entire outdoor season, including the autumn world championships. He began the 2020 campaign early, with rust-busting meets in February, for a run-up to defending his Olympic title. Van Niekerk felt his speed returned.
“He was really healthy and in the physical and mental condition that he was able to start handling tough races again,” van Zyl said.
Then came the Olympic postponement, which means van Niekerk will go nearly four years between races at global championships.
When he raced in Rio, van Niekerk was an emerging star who just turned 24. The Tokyo Olympics, postponed to 2021, will mark his last global outdoor championships before turning 30.
It’s difficult to predict what he’s capable of. NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon couldn’t think of another top-flight sprinter who returned from an ACL and meniscus tear.
Before the injury, van Niekerk in 2017 ran the fastest 300m in history and lowered personal bests in the 100m and 200m. He remains the only person in history to go sub-10 in the 100m, sub-20 in the 200m and sub-44 in the 400m.
Even without the injury, Boldon believes breaking his own 400m world record was a tall order due in part to the circumstances of Rio: van Niekerk had nobody in front of him in lane eight, and two past Olympic champions on his inside for motivation, even if he could not see them.
“You can look at a bunch of people that ran a PR in the beginning of their careers, like Bolt, or in the middle of their careers, like many other people, and never got back there,” Boldon said (Bolt’s PRs came at age 23; Johnson, the oldest man to win an Olympic sprint title, set that 1999 400m world record at 31). “Sometimes the planets don’t align again.”
After not seeing Botha for two months, van Niekerk and his coach have been reunited on the Bloemfontein track for about a month. The plan this summer: fly to Italy, where it’s warmer than South Africa this time of year, to train and see if there are opportunities to race. Van Zyl said last week they received clearance to travel but still needed to find a flight.
Can van Niekerk return to his pre-injury level? What about the potential mental hurdle of pushing that right knee to the limit in a major race?
Before van Niekerk, the heir to Bolt’s sprint throne was Jamaican Yohan Blake, who hasn’t returned to his record-teasing levels since major hamstring injuries in 2013 and 2014. In 2015, Blake’s coach (also Bolt’s coach) said that Blake was running scared, in fear of getting hurt again. In other sports, athletes faced that psychological obstacle, from Derrick Rose to Lindsey Vonn.
“The mental challenges that come with track and field is part of the process,” van Niekerk said. “Yeah, mentally, there will be additional this time around, thinking of my leg, but it’s now part of, basically, who I am as an athlete. I’ve been someone that accepts my circumstance very easily.”
Van Niekerk compares the comeback to his ascent. He began working with Botha in 2012 as a marketing student at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. He was a 100m and 200m sprinter.
Van Niekerk raced his first senior 400m in 2012, according to World Athletics. He broke the South African record in 2014. He broke the African record in winning the world title in 2015, when he ran himself to such exhaustion that he was stretchered off the track and taken to a hospital as a precaution. He ran another .45 faster in Rio.
But Rio actually wasn’t perfect. Van Niekerk said he was in tears before the 400m final due to hamstring and back injuries.
“I know how it is coming from nothing to achieving greatness,” he said last week. “Being able to break a world record with so much uncomfort that I did go through back then just shows me that I have the ability to continue pushing through the pain.”
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