Wayde van Niekerk, who won the 2016 Olympic 400m in world-record time, is leaving South Africa and his longtime coach, 79-year-old Ans Botha, to join Noah Lyles‘ training group in Florida.
“As much as I have enjoyed my experience with Tannie Ans and her group, I am hoping to break my world record (43.03 seconds) and to do that I need to ensure I am training alongside the world’s best sprinters,” van Niekerk said in a press release. “So I feel a temporary move to the United States will be in my best interests for the immediate future.”
Coach Lance Brauman leads Lyles’ group, which also includes Bahamian Shaunae Miller-Uibo, also a Rio Olympic 400m champion.
Van Niekerk and Lyles are not expected to be in direct individual competition in Tokyo. Lyles runs the 100m and 200m. Van Niekerk, though he won the 2017 World 200m silver medal in Lyles’ injury-forced absence, is expected to stick to the 400m this summer.
Van Niekerk, 28, will reassess his future plans after the Tokyo Olympics.
The move is reminiscent of 2016, when van Niekerk spent part of the build-up to the Rio Games by training with Usain Bolt‘s group in Jamaica. Then he stunned the world in the Olympic 400m final, breaking Michael Johnson‘s 17-year-old world record out of lane eight.
Breaking the world record again would be an even greater feat given van Niekerk’s obstacles the last three and a half years.
On Oct. 7, 2017, he tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee playing in a celebrity tag rugby match in Cape Town. It was a non-contact injury, and he walked off the Newlands Stadium field, albeit in pain. Van Niekerk discussed that day and its effects on his career last year.
Van Niekerk didn’t race again until February 2019 and, after recovery setbacks, still hasn’t competed outside of small meets in South Africa and Europe.
His best 400m time since the injury and operation is 45.58, ranking outside the top 70 in the world since the start of 2019.
The Tokyo Olympic favorites are Michael Norman, the fastest man in this Olympic cycle at 43.45, and Bahamian Steven Gardiner, who won the 2019 World title in 43.48.
Van Niekerk’s world record in Rio became even more magnetic with the sight of Botha in the stands. The grandmother coached him since 2012, when he enrolled as a marketing student at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein.
“I have such a big responsibility to get this athlete to develop to his full potential,” Botha said in 2015, when van Niekerk clocked 43.48 to win the world title and ran himself into such exhaustion that he was taken in an ambulance to a hospital.
“I can’t express the gratitude I have for everything she has done to help me get to this point in my career,” was posted on van Niekerk’s Twitter on Friday. “I’m really going to miss Tannie but she will always be my mentor!”
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