‘It is a learning process in every race. I am listening to my body and executing that way.’
WAYDE van Niekerk did the impossible from lane eight at the 2016 Rio Olympics, so will it be a lucky lane seven for the South African star at the World Athletics Championships?
The 30-year-old put it all out on the track during Wednesday’s second semi-final at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, to advance to the decider.
Van Niekerk – the 400m world record holder, double world champion and 2016 Olympic champion – sped to the front and posted the fastest opening 200m split in 20.97 seconds across the three semi-finals.
But going out hard almost cost him a top-two automatic qualifying spot as he was caught over the final 20 metres by American sensation Champion Allison and Barbados’ Jonathan Jones.
Van Niekerk, though, called on all of his experience to fight back in the last few strides to edge past Jones and finish second in 44.75, behind Allison’s 44.71 – with Jones third in 44.78.
But all that matters is that he has made it to tonight’s final (Saturday 4.35am SA time).
Wayde Van Niekerk bounces back in style in world champs: Track star and 400m recordholder, Wayde van Niekerk, tweeted: "1786 days, 5 years later and I'm back in the finals!!! All glory to God, for His grace. We keep working; this is a new beginning to so… https://t.co/LUgXuXUOSv
— SA Breaking News (@SABreakingNews) July 22, 2022
“It is the challenge of doing this 400 and not having as many races in (the) legs as I would love to have by now,” Van Niekerk told the international media afterwards.
“It is a learning process in every race. I am listening to my body and executing that way.”
He was referring to the fact that he had completed only a single 400m race prior to the world championships – a 44.58 in Marietta, Georgia on July 2.
But after all his battles with injury over the last few years, getting into his first major final since the 2017 world championships in London – where he won 400m gold and 200m silver – is an inspirational achievement.
Van Niekerk has been hard at work during training in Florida under American coach Lance Brauman in recent months, and looked in good shape in his 400m heat in Oregon, where he won in 45.18.
Having gone quicker in the semi-final, Van Niekerk will have to push even harder in the final, where he is up against American favourite Michael Norman, who posted the quickest time in the semi-finals with 44.30.
Norman also holds the world lead this year with 43.56, while Allison’s personal best of 43.70 was set in 2022 as well. The other major contender for the gold medal is former Olympic and world champion Kirani James of Grenada, who ran 44.74 in the semi-finals and has a season’s best of 44.02.
Van Niekerk has been drawn in lane seven for the final – with Norman in lane four and James in lane three – so he will have to “run blind” against the rest of the field, just like he did in the Rio Olympic final.
He is far from his best, but that was also the case in 2016, and he went on to set a new world record of 43.03. Perhaps it is a good omen for Oregon too …
The other South Africans in action in the Friday night session are headlined by young sensation Prudence Sekgodiso in the women’s 800m heats (Saturday 3.35am SA time), while the men’s 4x100m relay team – led by 100m finalist Akani Simbine – will begin their journey to a possible medal in the heats (Saturday 3.05am SA time).
Meanwhile, it was a difficult day for Team South Africa at Hayward Field yesterday, with Caster Semenya missing out on the 5,000m after finishing 13th in her heat with a time of 15:46.12.
Zeney van der Walt clocked a new personal best of 54.81 to finish fourth in her 400m hurdles heat, but it was not enough to go through to the final.
In the women’s javelin, Jo-Ane van Dyk’s best effort of 57.79m didn’t get her into the final either, while Tshepo Tshite finished sixth in his 800m heat in 1:47.61.