Sport

Wayde Back After Two-Year Layoff

  • It feels so good to be back on the track and to be competitive again, says a beaming Wayde

Olympic champion Wayde van Niekerk is competing again after more than two years out with a career-threatening knee injury and is racing against time to be ready to defend his title at the Tokyo Games.

The Olympics are five months away and the world record holder in the 400 metres still hasn’t run a major race since the 2017 world championships in London.

Van Niekerk competed at two low-level meets over the last week in Bloemfontein, South Africa, the city where he lives and trains. He came through his three races without any problems, although they were 100- and 200-metre races.

That’s still a major boost for the 27-year-old van Niekerk, whose planned return to the track last year was delayed because of setbacks with his recovery.

Van Niekerk ran the 100 metres at an in-house university event last week and ran the 100 and 200 at another meet in Bloemfontein on Saturday. He posted 10.20 seconds for the first 100 metres on a grass strip which was hand-timed. He ran 10.10 for the 100 and 20.31 for the 200 on the track at the weekend event, both electronically timed. He won all three races.

“Feels so good to be back on the track and to be competitive again,” van Niekerk said. “I’ve been off it a while so I’m learning to deal with it all again.

“Thank you to everyone who believed in me and stuck by me. This is only the beginning,” he noted.

Van Niekerk tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee playing in a charity tag rugby game in his home town of Cape Town in late 2017. He was rushed to the United States for surgery and has been rehabilitating at a sports medicine centre in Doha, Qatar.

It was a desperately disappointing blow for an athlete who had been tipped to be the new face of track and field following the retirement of Usain Bolt.

Van Niekerk provided one of the standout performances of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro when he won gold in the 400 and shattered Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record with a spectacular run in Lane 8.

He had hoped to make a long-awaited comeback at the London Diamond League meet last July in preparation for the world championships in Doha. However, he wasn’t ready and had to give up on an attempt at a third straight world title in the 400.

Van Niekerk is now aiming to test his knee over 400 metres in preparation for the South African national championships in late April. The South African track and field federation require athletes to compete at the nationals if they want to go to the Olympics.

Reflecting on the victory, longtime coach Ans Botha said she was delighted to have Van Niekerk back on the track again, adding she was looking forward to securing another gold medal at this year’s Olympics.

Speaking on the sidelines after the victory, Botha said, “With God’s grace and blessings, I am at a point in my life where I have the privilege of still doing what I’m doing. I am praying to take my boy to another Olympics.”

Botha, however, warned that they were not focusing on the Olympics just yet. “We are not concentrating on that, but on what we need to do now. I have to execute the everyday programme,” she explained.

If all goes well, said Botha, Van Niekerk would tick off his first official race at the Free State Championships this coming weekend.

“It was a long, hard road – not only physically, but psychologically as well. We started really slowly. We started with caution and I remember that, at that time, he was doing 150m a day. I wanted to make sure that he ran a balanced race, with no limping or anything like that,” Botha said of Van Niekerk’s road to recovery.

“There were a lot of positives, but we are still working with great care and management. He ran without problems and I really feel positive. He started off on a grass track and he will run on tartan this weekend. We are only testing how he handles the races,” she indicated.

Van Niekerk was on the verge of a return to competition in April but withdrew from the SA Senior Track and Field Championships in Germiston, Ekurhuleni.

Missing the national event, and later the World Championships in Qatar, was a blessing in disguise, according to Botha.

“In my opinion, he wouldn’t be where I would have liked him to be had he raced in the two majors competitions.

“I remember he was ready to race the national championships, but he slipped during warm-up because of the rain. There was a niggle and we said no.”

Botha has also ruled out the possibility of the reigning Olympic champion and world record-holder doing the 200m and 400m double in major championships in the near future.

By: Thapelo Molebatsi