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

Wayde van Niekerk
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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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John McFall, Paralympic medalist, becomes first parastronaut in Europe

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The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident to be among its newest batch of astronauts — a leap toward its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and later won a Paralympic 100m bronze medal in 2008, called his selection at Europe’s answer to NASA “a real turning point and mark in history.”

“ESA has a commitment to send an astronaut with a physical disability into space … This is the first time that a space agency has endeavored to embark on a project like this. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” he said.

The newly-minted parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris news conference — the conclusion of the agency’s first recruitment drive in over a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

McFall will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts because he will participate in a groundbreaking feasibility study exploring whether physical disability will impair space travel. It’s uncharted land, since no major Western space agency has ever put a parastronaut into space, according to the ESA.

Speaking with pride amid flashes of emotion, McFall said that he was uniquely suited to the mission because of the vigor of his mind and body.

“I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I lost my leg about twenty plus years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally … All those factors and hardships in life have given me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to,” he added.

“I never dreamt of being an astronaut. It was only when ESA announced that they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability to embark on this project that it really sparked my interest.”

The feasibility study, that will last two to three years, will examine the basic hurdles for a parastronaut including how a physical disability might impact mission training, and if modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required, for example.

ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said it was still a “long road” for McFall but described the fresh recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there that are almost superhuman in that they’ve already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?”

Parker also says that he “thinks” it may be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I do not claim ownership.”

“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first parastronaut, that means someone who has been selected by the regular astronaut selection process but happens to have a disability that would normally have ruled him out,” he said.

It will be at least five years before McFall goes into space as an astronaut — if he is successful.

Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the American agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remains the same” but said the agency is looking forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.

NASA stressed that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting future astronauts who might be put in life-threatening situations.

“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements call for each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be aggravated by, spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot added.

NASA said future “assistive technology” might change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.

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Ilia Malinin in familiar position after Grand Prix Finland short program

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Ilia Malinin landed a quadruple Axel in his free skate to win his first two competitions this season. Less known was that the 17-year-old American had to come from behind to win each time.

An at least slightly injured Malinin looks up in the standings again after the short program of his third event, Grand Prix Finland. Malinin had erred landings on two of his three jumping passes in Friday’s short, where quad Axels are not allowed, then said he had a left foot problem, according to the International Skating Union.

“I’m a little bit injured, I’m playing it safe, protect it to make sure the injury doesn’t get worse,” he said, according to the ISU.

He tallied 85.57 points for second place, which is 3.39 fewer than leader Kevin Aymoz of France going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin, the world junior champion ranked No. 1 in the world in his first full senior season, merely needs to finish fourth or better (perhaps even fifth) to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, which pits the top six per discipline in the world in a preview of March’s world championships.

Grand Prix Finland concludes with all of the free skates on Saturday.

GRAND PRIX FINLAND: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier Friday, world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium led the women’s short with 74.88 points, edging Mai Mihara of Japan by 1.3. Hendrickx and Mihara are in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. World champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, South Korea’s Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito already have spots in the Final.

The world’s top ice dance couple this season, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, improved on their world-leading rhythm dance score by tallying 87.80 points. They lead Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker by 6.87, with both couples in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini topped the pairs’ short program by 4.3 points over Americans Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia. The Italians rank fourth in the world this season behind three teams that aren’t in the Finland field but will be at the Grand Prix Final, including world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S.

Smirnova and Silanytsia are competing in their lone Grand Prix this season after withdrawing before Skate America, making them ineligible for Grand Prix Final qualification. Their short program score ranks fourth among American pairs this season, putting them in contention for one of three spots on the team for worlds, to be decided after January’s national championships.

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