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Wayde steps into the unknown

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Was it the right call made by Van Niekerk last Friday to leave ‘Tannie’ Ans Botha’s training group and move to the US ahead of this year’s rescheduled Tokyo Olympics?

Tannie Ans Botha and Wayde van Niekerk have come a long way together. Picture: Gavin Barker, BackpagePix

IT’S an image we will never forget: After Wayde van Niekerk shocked the world with his record-breaking 400 metres run at the Rio Olympics, there was a grey-haired figure in his entourage in the stands who was beaming with pride.

It was his most unlikely coach, “Tannie” Ans Botha, who watched her protégé conquer the globe with his remarkable run of 43.03 seconds, which eclipsed Michael Johnson’s long-standing mark of 43.18.

The situation was one of a grandmother and her favourite grandson, which was not far-fetched, seeing that Botha had moulded Van Niekerk into the superstar he became, despite being 74 years old then.

But since then, it’s been a tough time for the cousin of Springbok wing Cheslin Kolbe. Ironically, it was a touch rugby match that set the wheels in motion for a disappointing last few years that has seen Van Niekerk miss out on world championships, and he may have sat out of the Tokyo Games too if it had taken place last year.

All the while, Botha has been by his side, like she was in his formative years. Mostly strict, not letting him get carried away with the shorter sprints, and remaining focused on defending his 400m title … And even thinking of the unthinkable – a sub-43sec time.

So, was it the right call made by Van Niekerk last Friday to leave Botha’s training group and move to the US ahead of this year’s rescheduled Tokyo Olympics?

He was full of praise for her in his statement and subsequent tweets, using the words “amazing” and “gratitude” for her contribution, adding that she would always be his mentor.

But he was also adamant that he needed to be “training alongside the world’s best sprinters” in order to break the world record, which is what he will be doing by joining the training group of 200m American star Noah Lyles and 400m women’s Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas.

It is a step into the unknown for Van Niekerk.

He is not conducting media interviews at this stage following his announcement last Friday, and has been cagey about details such as when he intends to arrive in Claremont, Florida to join his new coach Lance Brauman, as well as when he will be back on the track again.

There will be a South African season of some sort in the next few months, which normally concludes with the national championships in mid April, but it is unclear if Van Niekerk will participate in any local competitions – although he has posted videos and pictures of him training in Bloemfontein over the last few weeks.

But there is a bigger picture here for the 28-year-old than just changing his coach. After the struggles of the last few years, perhaps it’s time for him to get out of his comfort zone of Bloemfontein and Botha. Almost like Bok rugby captain Siya Kolisi’s move to the Sharks, Van Niekerk needs a fresh challenge, and needs to be tested seriously on the track once more, which SA races and training groups don’t provide.

Being in the US will also elevate his personal profile as a current Olympic champion. But it is all about being pushed to the limit in his preparation and competition, and that is what he hopes Florida will give.

And guess who is waiting for Van Niekerk in the US? The man who has run the fastest 400m time since the Rio Olympics, Michael Norman, a 23-year-old American with a time of 43.45.