South African Wayde van Niekerk’s Olympic gold medal and beautiful world record in the 400 meters could hardly get any sweeter. Out of lane eight—few win out of lane eight, much less set a world record, because other competitors are behind the lane eight runner until they hit the last straight, when it’s often too late to respond—this nice young man (he’s only 24) ran away from his boyhood idols, broke Michael Johnson’s 19-year-old record for the one-lap race, and looked good doing it. 43:03 is the new mark he established, a breath away from previously unthinkable 42-second territory.
But the story is actually even sweeter than that. The nice young man who won Olympic gold and set the world record out of lane eight is coached by one of the only female coaches in elite level track, and claims a belated victory for his mom and post-apartheid South Africa. Bit of a mouthful, that. Let’s have a look.
Van Niekerk immediately credited his coach, 74-year-old great-grandmother Ans Botha, for his being on the podium. The media went crazy with images of the white-haired woman, but the truth is that there are plenty of male coaches past retirement age. It’s the female coach part of that story that’s rare. Old, young, coaching women, men, or both, I can only think of two pro-level female coaches in the U.S.—Rose Monday and Heather Burroughs.
Botha seems to be a perfect combination of experience, authority, confidence, humility, and gentleness. After all, she guided van Niekerk from 48-second injury-prone nobody to gold medal 43:03 world record holder in three years. Botha told the Sunday Times in 2015 that when van Niekerk first started training with her, he ran 48 seconds for 400 meters and collapsed in a heap.
“This is not new,” Botha said. “The first time he went 44.91 it was the same thing, he was lying down at the finish line for about half an hour.”
Unmoved by his theatrics, Botha nonetheless was nearly overwhelmed by the responsibility of guiding such a world class talent.
“I have such a big responsibility to get this athlete to develop to his full potential, and also the responsibility for myself to try to do my very best not to do something wrong which can make or break him,” she told the Sunday Times.
This is how Botha proceeded: “The main thing is we listened to what his body said to us. If the body said stop, we stopped, or went a little softer.”
Could it get sweeter than that? Yes, yes it can. Van Niekerk was born in 1992 in South Africa, a volatile time when the country was rather violently transitioning from apartheid to democracy.
According to Athletics Clipboard, a website devoted to South Africa’s “unsung sporting heroes,” Odessa Swarts, nee Krause, van Niekerk’s mom, was a record-setting athlete as a teen in the late 1980s and early 1990s—which is to say, she was a black athlete competing under apartheid. Running on tracks made of grass, gravel and dirt, she chose to oppose apartheid by participating in South African Council on Sport (SACOS) events. During South Africa’s isolation, when the country’s athletes were banned from international competition, participation in SACOS events was a form of passive resistance, of disrupting apartheid. But it also meant that even though she ran 12.32 for 100 meters and 25.3 for 200 meters at age 16 on a clay track, that was as far as her track career was going to go.
As Clement du Plessis of Athletics Clipboard wrote: “Despite all her accomplishments, the young athlete was never tempted by big corporate sponsors and the prospect of competing at Coetzenburg Stadium in Stellenbosch, the track and hallowed arena of athletics in apartheid South Africa. As the country was already isolated from the international sports world, it would not have changed anything.”
Coming full circle, Odessa’s son—a chip off the old block, as du Plessis’s photo shows—was able to compete on a world stage representing a democratic South Africa. That’s pretty sweet.