Olympic Gold In Her Golden Years

Being assigned to lane 8 in an Olympic track event can create the illusion of disadvantage for the runner.  If allowed to interfere, doubt will betray the runner’s confidence and spoil years of preparation.  Even though his chances of winning a medal were slim, Wayde van Niekerk from South Africa didn’t permit external distractions to disturb his internal composure as he stepped into the blocks of lane 8 for the 400 meter race. 

Perhaps it was the energy of the Olympic stadium or a private affirmation repeated over and over, but van Niekerk ran like he owned the race.  Little did he know that Victory had already finished her race and was waiting for him at the other end of lane 8.  After he was first to cross the finish line, the cheers from the crowd reached a magnificent crescendo as the results were announced:

NEW WR    43.03
  RSA  MEN'S 400m  

It seems that every four years we have to be reminded not to underestimate the fervent aspirations of a first-time Olympic athlete.

van Niekerk’s astonishing achievement at the Rio Olympics broke the long-standing world record for the men’s 400, and he also defied all of the unfavorable perceptions of running in the outer lane.  With everyone else running behind him, van Niekerk, 24, had to rely on unwavering ambition and years of rigorous training to remain in front and drive himself to an unprecedented finish.  
Among the exuberant fans in the stadium was van Niekerk’s coach, Anna Sofia Botha, whose joyful smile transcended the applause.  At 74, Botha appeared more like a supportive grandmother in modest clothing rather than a professional coach clad in team colors.  Botha challenged the common perceptions of what the coach of an Olympic athlete should look like, consequently, the opportunity to congratulate van Niekerk was delayed by skeptical security guards.  

At last, they were able to hug one another and she conveyed the depth of respect and admiration between them:  “It wasn’t necessary to say anything.  We knew in our hearts and in our minds what we thought and what we had achieved.” 1

How does Botha train an athlete who aspires to be a gold medalist?  In addition to strict coaching, Botha explained, “I have to read my athlete.  I have to read his mind and read his body and listen to what his body tells me.  I think I have the ability to know my athlete inside out.”  van Niekerk had focused on the 200 meter race before asking Botha if he could train with her in 2012.  Coach Botha believed that his natural talent was better suited for the 400 meter race, so she adjusted his training for the longer race knowing that his steadfast discipline would fulfill his desire to win.  Four years later, van Niekerk is an Olympic gold medalist who has made Coach Botha’s golden years shine a little brighter. 2     

Thank you, Rio de Janeiro, for hosting a first-rate Olympics.


1-2  All quotes from The New York Times.  August15, 2016.  Karen Crouse.