Athlete recalls childhood incentives with rugby cousin
SPRINT star Wayde van Niekerk and his fleet-footed rugby player cousin, Cheslin Kolbe, once earned piles of pocket money as schoolchildren when their coach offered cash for tries.
Now Van Niekerk is aiming to bag the first major medal of his athletics career at the world championships in Beijing, starting with his 400m heats on Sunday morning (5am South African time).
“We came here for one thing only – to get a top-three,” a relaxed Van Niekerk said in an interview at the South African team’s hotel yesterday. “The focus is on just getting that medal.”
Asked if he was looking at any particular colour, he replied: “Whichever blessing, I’ll accept it.”
Van Niekerk grew up in Cape Town, playing touch rugby on the streets with Kolbe. Who scored more tries? “I did,” he replied with a laugh, but then said: “I’m joking, I can’t remember.”
He and Kolbe were in the same Simonsberg junior school rugby team.
“Our coach offered us R5 a try and that day Cheslin and I scored a lot of tries. We made a lot of money,” he said.
Van Niekerk took up running seriously in high school in Bloemfontein, where he first competed using his stepfather’s shoes.
“I wore them for two years before I got a sponsor. It was a pair of shoes with flowers on them and I didn’t want shoes with flowers on.
“But nobody noticed because I didn’t win. I didn’t even make the Free State team that time,” he recalled.
This time he is arguably the South African team’s best hope of a medal in Beijing, having shown awesome form this season, breaking the 44-second barrier in the 400m, which proved an important step. “I was fighting so many mental battles this year. I used to doubt myself. Each time I broke a record I would wonder if I could do it again.
“Once I broke 44 I realised I’m limiting myself if I’m going to doubt myself,” Van Niekerk said. He soon afterwards broke the 20-second barrier in the 200m. He feels at home taking on his three biggest rivals – Olympic champion Kirani James, world champion LaShawn Merrit and African champion Isaac Makwala.
He has beaten James and Makwala in separate races this season.
But Van Niekerk is less comfortable with needles, which proved a problem when blood was taken from him in a doping test on Tuesday, the day he arrived in China. “I fainted,” he said. Van Niekerk has been named as one of the six members of the South African 4x100m relay team, but he was adamant he would rather focus on the one-lap race.
“It’s definitely not part of my plan, but if they need me [to run the relay] I can’t refuse,” he said.
The relay is scheduled for after the 400m final.
Clocking his world-class times takes its toll, he said, admitting he became ill after each tough 400m race.
“I never throw up after training, but every time I race hard, a personal best . . .”
Van Niekerk’s nausea in Beijing could be good for South Africa’s medal tally.