Reaching for the stars and going for gold with star athlete, Wayde van Niekerk as we discuss his process of healing from a career-threatening injury and adversity.
Wayde van Niekerk knows adversity. He was literally born into it. The first 24 hours of his life were spent battling jaundice in an intensive care unit. And he has not stopped fighting since.
We meet briefly at the South African launch of his documentary, 43:03: The Wayde van Niekerk story. The title relates to his feat at the Rio Olympics back in 2016, where, running in the graveyard eighth lane, he smashed track icon Michael Johnson’s nearly two-decade long 400 m record. It made him an instant global superstar and his profile, on and off the track, began to rise at blinding speed.
In June last year, he vowed to get ‘ridiculous’ at a meeting in Ostrava, Czech Republic. He did exactly that, breaking Johnson’s 300 m world record and in the process making him the only sprinter in history to
have produced sub-10, sub-20, sub-31 and sub-44 performances at 100 m, 200 m, 300 m and 400 m respectively.
Then later that year, what was supposed to be a fun game of touch rugby ended in tragedy when he tore a knee ligament completely off the bone. In the aftermath, many thought he’d never run again, and if he did, he certainly wouldn’t be the potent force he had been. But Wayde refuses to have his career obituary read just yet.
This is the story of a defiant and determined man showing us the lessons we can learn en route to building the best versions of ourselves. This is a story of personal progress.
In the immediate wake of the diagnosis, how did you respond?
My first emotions and thoughts were those of denial. I had trouble believing that I’d hurt myself so seriously. When the doctor told me I’d torn the ligament off (the bone), I didn’t want to believe it. I was trying to look for a beacon of hope. That’s where my mind was at, especially in the first week or so.
And once you’d gone past that phase?
I definitely felt like I was drifting into a negative space: a dark place. But I’m quite in touch with my emotional side, and consider myself to be mentally strong. So when I felt like I was going to a place I couldn’t control, I tried to get out of it as soon as possible. I reached out to my pastor because I knew that if I stayed in that place for much longer, I wasn’t going to make it through. I needed him to teach me to get closer to God. Not just daily devotions, I wanted to learn to communicate with God in a more powerful way. I’ve gone from strength to strength ever since.
Read the full interview with Wayde in your August issue of Man.