Johannesburg - While Wayde van Niekerk collapsed onto the track of the Bird’s Nest as the new men’s 400m world champion, his family was jumping for joy in Kraaifontein in the Western Cape.
There was apparently not a dry eye in the house as they celebrated Van Niekerk’s rise from a young dreamer to one of the biggest stars of international track and field.
For his aunt and godmother Alnisha van Niekerk, who is one of his most vocal cheerleaders, there was never a doubt that her nephew would achieve greatness.
“We always knew he would reach big heights one day, it was just amazing when he won that afternoon,” Alnisha told Sport24 this week.
“I was jumping around and actually threw my phone in the air, it didn’t work for about two hours afterwards.”
Van Niekerk left it all on the track in that final where he became the fourth fastest 400m athlete of all-time with the sixth fastest time when he clocked 43.56 to win the title.
His storming run also dragged America’s LaShawn Merritt and Grenada’s Kirani James, who finished second and third respectively below 44 seconds, the first time three men have done so in one race.
Alnisha believed Van Niekerk’s success on the track was written in the stars.
Van Niekerk and his mother, Odessa Swart, moved from Cape Town to Bloemfontein in 2005 when he was 12.
“On the last day of school when they held a farewell party for him when he left for Bloemfontein the one boy shouted afterwards “bye Wayde make us proud, we will see you on TV and in the newspapers one day” and the child was still only 12-years old,” Alnisha said.
“I wonder where that boy is because I would like to tell him all his words came true; it was amazing.”
The sprinter’s father Wayne van Niekerk, who remained behind in Cape Town after he separated from Swart, was brimming with pride after his ‘humble boy’ conquered the world.
“He is just an amazing boy, he makes me very proud, he is a humble boy that is very respectable,” Wayne said.
“As a young boy he ran for Simonsberg Primary School and the first race I saw of him I could see the champion in him and he already had the running style of Carl Lewis and the big guys.”
Wayne describes how naturally his son took to sport and recalls the days Van Niekerk played rugby with distant cousin and Western Province dynamo Cheslin Kolbe.
“They used to play in the same team in primary school and Cheslin was playing at scrumhalf and Wayde was playing at wing,” Wayne said.
“At that young age the ball never reached the wing so the teacher moved Wayde to flyhalf and it would be just one pass from Cheslin and it would be a try.”
Both parents were talented athletes with Odessa earning her provincial colours as a senior athlete.
“I could see his talent from a young age, in grade one he already won a small trophy which I still have at home, so he is born with a talent,” Wayne said.
“I would do any kind of sport and I was a high jumper reaching over two metres and he (Van Niekerk) also had to make a choice when he went to Grey College between running and high jumping.”
Van Niekerk’s achievement on the international track circuit meant much more to a family of talented athletes that were denied the opportunity to participate on that stage because of Apartheid.
“From a young age he was so dedicated and I just knew he would do it. His mom was a sprinter, his dad was a sprinter. We are all athletes in the family and I was also a high jumper,” Alnisha said.
“Back in the day we couldn’t go overseas but he is doing it for all of us, and we are very proud.”