South Africa and the world watched a legend being born yesterday.
Not only did Cape klong Wayde van Niekerk bring home the gold at the Olympic Games, but he also smashed a 17-year-old world record set by the legendary Michael Johnson in 1999, when he won the Men’s 400m final in Rio de Janeiro.
His proud family back home, along with millions of South Africans, tuned in at 3am yesterday morning to watch Wayde running the thrilling race in just 43.03 seconds. That’s 0.15 seconds faster than Johnson’s mark.
Running in the outside lane, which according to those in the know is any sprinter’s least favourite lane because you can’t see your competitors, 24-year-old Wayde had no one to outrun but himself.
On the final bend and over the last 100 metres, one of the TV commentators mistakenly assumes that Wayde was getting moeg.
But the Kraaifontein-born sprinter was only gearing up for the final sprint, leaving favourites Kirani James, from Grenada, and America’s LaShawn Merritt eating dust.
Wayde checked the board afterwards, and covered his face as he realised he had won the race in record time, and won South Africa’s first and only gold medal of Rio 2016 so far.
“I have dreamt of this since I was a little kid. The only thing I can do is give God all the praise. I went on my knees each and every day, telling the Lord to take care of me, to look after me every step of the way. I even wrote it on my spikes tonight,” he said flashing his white and red Adidas spikes.
Asked if he knew he would win, Wayde said: “I believed it, yes, but it was a very challenging competition. I am just glad things went my way tonight.”
The sprinter said he had no idea where he was in the race, right up till the end.
“As I got to the finish line, I was expecting one of them to catch me. I crossed the line, I looked left and there was no one. I felt very alone at the end, and I thought ‘what’s going on?’ That gave me motivation to keep pushing. I still have to pinch myself at what just happened.”
Having excited family members hysterically cheering from the stands also helped.
Wayde flew out 10 relatives last week to join him in Rio, including his parents, grandparents and girlfriend.
Also in the stands was his coach, Ans Botha, 74, a great-grandmother. She smiled broadly when her prodigy won.
In an interview with Kfm yesterday, his mom Odessa Swarts, a former sprinter herself, said it was still unreal.
“We have had so many calls and messages from our people back home. It’s like this child has just woken up the whole of South Africa. It is all just so unreal, (an) emotion that you can’t even explain.”
After his historic race, Wayde joined his family in the stands.
“He sat there for a while, laughing and chatting as we went back and forth over how we experienced the race. He then went to take a rest. A world-record holder needs a rest as well,” Odessa joked.
Back home, Wayde’s cousin Dayne Pillar, 22, says the relatives who did not score a ticket to Rio all got up at 2am to watch the race.
Dayne’s parents are in Rio with Wayde.
He attended school with Wayde at Simonsberg Primary in Kraaifontein and is very proud of his cousin.
“This is everything he has ever wanted and it means the world to him and his family. I sent him a message this morning to tell him he makes us all proud,” says Dayne.
Uncle Wendle van Niekerk remembers the days he and Wayde trained together, before Wayde started “running away from me”.
“I used to take him to tracks in Stellenbosch or Bellville to practise. He was very strong, he could train with someone sitting on his back,” he says.