7 May 2017

Reassessing Gold: Interview with “Tannie Ans” Botha

Daniel Gallan

All records are made to be broken but some are just never expected to do so. One of those was Michael Johnson's 43.18 set in the 400m in 1999. However, at the Olympic Games in Rio last year, Wayde van Niekerk smashed it out the park with a mind blowing 43.03. The women behind his success, "Tannie Ans" Botha, speaks to CONQA on how that record has changed their relationship, how the pair are striving for more success and what it would take to join the pantheon of greats who claim gold in both the 400m and 200m.

Wayde van Niekerk (l) and Anna "Tannie Ans" Botha (r) have formed a remarkable relationship, both professionally and personally, that has catapulted the young sprinter to athletics royalty.

Wayde van Niekerk (l) and Anna "Tannie Ans" Botha (r) have formed a remarkable relationship, both professionally and personally, that has catapulted the young sprinter to athletics royalty.

Where do you go once you’ve already scaled the summit of a mountain? That is the question facing Wayde van Niekerk, the 24 year old South African who ran a blistering 43.03 in the 400m final at the Rio Olympics last year; obliterating Michael Johnson’s seemingly unbeatable world record time of 43.18 set 17 years prior.

For van Niekerk’s coach, Anna “Tannie Ans” Botha, reaching the top of one mountain just provides a better view for the next.

“There’s always another challenge, there’s always another dream,” Botha says. “You cannot look back. The competition at the top is so strong and any complacency will leave you struggling to keep up. We’re proud of what Wayde achieved but now there are new goals.”

One is doubling up at the IAAF World Championships in London in August later this year by claiming gold in both the 400m and the 200m. Van Niekerk is well on track for this astonishing feat, having clocked the fastest 200m of the year so far: 19.90, 0.12 seconds off Usain Bolt’s gold winning time at Rio.

But has this expansion of their goals altered their preparation? After all, one would think that summiting two daunting peaks would require a dramatic shift in mindset and training. For Botha, it’s all about keeping things simple and focussing on what has already brought van Niekerk success.

“We work on the basics,” the septuagenarian Namibian native says. “I’ve been in the game long enough to know that when you start overcomplicating things that’s when you start making mistakes. Of course we need to try and adjust things here and there with the new aim of winning the 200m as well as the 400m, but they’re minor tweaks instead of big changes.”

Botha speaks at great length on the “trust, respect and deep love” that is shared between the prodigious athlete and the seasoned coach that has fostered a belief the pair have each other’s best interests at heart.

The unlikely duo joined forces in 2012 when van Niekerk enrolled at the University of the Free State where Botha was the head athletics coach. “I knew even before then, when he was still a schoolboy, that Wayde was special. All I had to do was guide him, nurture him and help him develop. But he knows where his talents lie and how blessed he is. He has strong family roots that keep him humble.”

Botha suggests that it is van Niekerk’s personality, founded in a strong sense of humility, that will allow him to pursue his goal of the double. While athletes like Usain Bolt thrive on bravado and machismo to push them to greater heights, Botha is adamant that keeping van Niekerk grounded will be the key to his success.

“From the outside people might think that this success would have gone to his head,” the veteran coach says. “He’s only human after all and it’s difficult not to start getting your head in the clouds. But we speak about fame, about success and what it means to achieve so much at such a young age. That is why we can’t look back. It’s the potential to achieve more and to not be satisfied that keeps him focussed and grounded.”

Botha does concede though that there is a target on van Niekerk’s back. When the likes of Johnson and Bolt are touting your name as the next superstar of the sport, it would be impossible for that not to play on the mind.

“It’s the way people are. If somebody performs like that, everyone wants that performance again and again,” she says.

Furthermore, requests for interviews, TV and radio appearances and endorsements of products have sky rocketed since Rio. Botha explains that one of the most challenging jobs on her hand is managing van Niekerk’s time as he scales the ladder towards global stardom.

“People don’t understand what it’s like for a young man who is suddenly catapulted into the public eye,” Botha says, though she does not lament the newfound fame enjoyed by her prized athlete.

“It comes with the territory but the most important thing is finding the time to train and rest. We can’t fulfil every obligation or attend every meet. Journalists and media people can’t understand because he is the big dog on the block and people interpret that as arrogance.”

For Botha, the only obligation she has is ensuring van Niekerk’s body is up to the challenge ahead. The young athlete perennially struggled with niggling injuries and it was Botha, believing that the explosiveness of the 100m and 200m were aggravating his developing body, who took him away from his first love of the shorter sprints and shifted him towards the 400m.

“He’s ready now for the extra work load,” Botha says with confidence. “But he’s not a machine. We have to manage his recovery and rest. History has shown that athletes can do the double but these are exceptional human beings. Wayde can join them but not without hard work and dedication. He wants it bad enough so I am confident he can do it.”

According to Botha, van Niekerk’s success has only intensified a relationship that is not only heart-warming for the outside observer but also clearly extremely productive on the track. With one of the sport’s most challenging mountains already conquered, this remarkable duo is just getting started.