South African Wayde van Niekerk is the new king of 400m sprinting and his unlikely partnership with a 74-year-old great-grandmother has been vital to one of the landmark successes of the Rio Olympics.
Van Niekerk shaved 15 hundredths of a second off American great Michael Johnson’s world record – which had stood since 1999 – in winning the 400m gold in a sizzling 43.03 seconds on Monday (AEST).
He also became the first man to win Olympic gold from a lane eight start since 1924.
But the 24-year-old’s phenomenal achievements would not have been possible without the close bond he shares with veteran coach Ans Botha.
“She’s an amazing woman,” van Niekerk said after his triumph.
“She’s played a huge role in what I am today. She’s really kept me very disciplined and very focused on the goal and where I need to be.
“I’m really grateful I can go on the track and say my coach has pushed me to reach every level and believe anything is possible.”
Known affectionately as ‘Tannie Ans’ by the athletes in her stable (Tannie means Auntie in Afrikaans), Botha became a highly respected figure in South African athletics as head coach at the University of the Free State.
And while she has been largely responsible with unlocking van Niekerk’s extraordinary potential, Botha’s association with the sprinting phenom – which began in 2012 – has also presented her with unprecedented opportunities.
Botha, a former sprinter and long jumper, had never been to an IAAF World Championships meet before she took van Niekerk to Beijing last year, where he ran the fourth-fastest 400m time in history to claim gold.
‘Bolt helped me coach better’
Botha revealed she used the chance to watch the likes of Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin up close at the world championships to improve her training methods and help her star charges.
“If I see something that will work on my athletes, I will try it and implement it. That’s how I always try to bring something new in our training,” Botha told South Africa’s City Press.
“They say you’re never too old to learn, especially in athletics.”
Now she is the coach of a record-breaking champion – South Africa’s first Olympic gold medallist in a sprinting event since Bevil Rudd won the 400m at the 1920 Antwerp Games.
Despite boasting a coaching career spanning five decades, Botha’s enthusiasm remains as fervent as ever.
“I’m very blessed because I don’t have any health problems, and it is because I’m busy with young people – and you have to be high up there with them,” she said.
“My passion is too high to even think about that.”
Botha also gave an insight to the duty and pressure that handling a talent as special as van Nierkirk entails.
“I wouldn’t say I’m afraid … but I have such a big responsibility to get this athlete to develop to his full potential,” she said.
“Also, I need to try to do my very best not to do something wrong that might break him.”
The relationship goes both ways, however.
Mutual respect is the foundation of Botha and van Niekerk’s rock-solid partnership and the former runs a tight ship.
“They are exceptionally close, very connected, very trusting and respect each other enormously,” DB Prinsloo, a University of the Free State colleague of Botha’s for the past 25 years, explained.
“But she doesn’t put up with any nonsense from any of them. She has rules, standards and is very much into the discipline of training and competing.
“Tannie Ans has a strict regime and everyone has to respect that.
“Wayde knows where he stands with her, he acknowledges her experience and skills and takes advantage of all the wisdom she has to offer.”
The first sprinter ever to break 10 seconds in the 100m, 20 seconds in the 200m and 44 seconds over 400m, van Niekerk is now set to lock horns with Bolt in a mouthwatering 200m final on Friday (AEST).