Wayde van Niekerk moves from famed coach, heads to U.S.

Wayde van Niekerk
Getty Images

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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Football takes significant step in Olympic push

Flag Football
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Football took another step toward possible Olympic inclusion with the IOC executive board proposing that the sport’s international federation — the IFAF — be granted full IOC recognition at a meeting in October.

IOC recognition does not equate to eventual Olympic inclusion, but it is a necessary early marker if a sport is to join the Olympics down the line. The IOC gave the IFAF provisional recognition in 2013.

Specific measures are required for IOC recognition, including having an anti-doping policy compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency and having 50 affiliated national federations from at least three continents. The IFAF has 74 national federations over five continents with almost 4.8 million registered athletes, according to the IOC.

The NFL has helped lead the push for flag football to be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games. Flag football had medal events for men and women at last year’s World Games, a multi-sport competition including Olympic and non-Olympic sports, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Football is one of nine sports that have been reported to be in the running to be proposed by LA 2028 to the IOC to be added for the 2028 Games only. LA 2028 has not announced which, if any sports, it plans to propose.

Under rules instituted before the Tokyo Games, Olympic hosts have successfully proposed to the IOC adding sports solely for their edition of the Games.

For Tokyo, baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were added. For Paris, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were approved again, and breaking will make its Olympic debut. Those sports were added four years out from the Games.

For 2028, the other sports reportedly in the running for proposal are baseball and softball, breaking, cricket, karate, kickboxing, lacrosse, motorsports and squash.

All of the other eight sports reportedly in the running for 2028 proposal already have a federation with full IOC recognition (if one counts the international motorcycle racing federation for motorsports).

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. It is produced by Religion of Sports, the venture founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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