“I thought he was going to fade a bit, I honestly did.”
Bralon Taplin assumed the South African would tie up over the final 100 meters.
“Everybody knows that if you cook the first 300 too fast, you’re going to crash and burn.”
Kirani James couldn’t believe the gap between him and the reigning world champ kept on growing.
“He just kept going and going and he never slowed down.”
None of van Niekerk’s rivals could stay within striking distance of him on a night when he became track and field’s undisputed one-lap king. Not only did the 24-year-old secure Olympic gold in the 400 meters, he also smashed an iconic world record that many considered virtually untouchable prior to Sunday night.
Michael Johnson’s mark of 43.18 seconds had stood for nearly 17 years and had seldom been seriously challenged before van Niekerk crossed the finish line at Olympic Stadium in 43.03. The closest any runner had come before that was Jeremy Wariner’s time of 43.45 seconds at the 2007 world championships.
What made van Niekerk’s performance all the more legendary was that he did it from the dreaded lane eight. Runners in lane eight have no competitor to pace themselves against during the race, nor do they have any idea how fast their peers are running behind them.
Van Niekerk tried to turn a negative into a positive by treating the Olympic final like a training run. He bolted out of the blocks, maintained his lead throughout the middle of the race and then surged to the finish and leaned at the line as though someone was right on his heels.
It turned out van Niekerk need not have worried. James, the 2012 Olympic champ, and Merritt, the 2008 Olympic champ, were both more than seven-tenths of a second behind him.
“As I crossed the finish line, I was expecting one of them to catch me,” van Niekerk said. “I looked left and I saw there was no one. I’m still a bit amazed. I have to pinch myself about what just happened.”
To put into perspective how impressive van Niekerk’s performance was, consider what happened 25 minutes after his race. Usain Bolt interrupted his own victory celebration moments after winning the 100 meters to seek out van Niekerk and congratulate him.
Van Niekerk spent time in Jamaica earlier this year training with Bolt and his coach Glen Mills. While there, Bolt made a prediction that on Sunday proved to be prescient.
“When he came to Jamaica, I said to him, ‘You’re the only person who can break the 400-meter record,’ ” Bolt said. “He’s very fast and keeps on going. To me, I wasn’t really surprised he got it.”
While few besides Bolt expected van Niekerk to surpass Johnson’s record on Sunday night, it’s hardly a surprise that he won the race. He ran the fourth-fastest 400 meters ever at last year’s world championships and earlier this year became the only man to have run under 10 seconds for the 100, 20 seconds for the 200 and 44 seconds for the 400.
The only reason van Niekerk received less attention than Merritt or James in the buildup to Sunday’s race was because his preliminary and semifinal times were both pedestrian. Van Niekerk said he felt a twinge in a hamstring midway through both races, but he ran pain-free in the final and held nothing back as a result.
“I was like, ‘OK, don’t lose this opportunity,'” van Niekerk said. “I tried to push harder and harder.”
Van Niekerk’s rise to prominence began three years ago when he started working with track and field’s most unconventional coach.
Seventy-four-year-old great-grandmother Ans Botha is a former long jumper and sprinter and a renowned coach in South Africa. She is known as Tannie Ans to her athletes – Aunt Ans in her native Afrikaans – and she commands discipline and respect among her stable of sprinters.
“She’s very loving, but when track workouts needs to be done, she makes sure you get them done,” said South African sprinter Akani Simbine, van Niekerk’s roommate in Rio. “When I first met her, I was afraid of her.”
In a sport desperate for someone to replace the star power of aging sprinting standouts Bolt, Merritt and Justin Gatlin, van Niekerk could someday emerge as the centerpiece of the next wave of talent. He already owns a world championship gold, an Olympic gold and a world record once thought to be unbreakable. The next step is cementing himself as a legend.
“I have an opportunity now to build my own legacy,” van Niekerk said. “Hopefully I can inspire more South African kids and athletes around the world.”
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