By Theresa Gonzalez
World champion sprinter Wayde van Niekerk showed athletic promise early. Rugby, high jump and soccer were all in the mix before he devoted his career to sprinting after qualifying for the 2010 IAAF World Junior Championships in Canada. After just missing the podium (he came in fourth), van Niekerk resolved to become a competitive sprinter, following the footsteps of his parents who were both champion athletes in track and field during the late ‘80s in South Africa.
At the South African National Championships the following year, van Niekerk tore his hamstring, an injury that sidelined him for nearly three years. Rehabilitation and determination secured him a national title with a personal best in the 400m in 2013. By 2015, van Niekerk had become the fourth-fastest person in history (behind three Americans) with a 400m win at the IAAF World Championships. He made history again earlier this year by becoming the first sprinter to run faster than 10 seconds for 100m, 20 seconds for 200m and 44 seconds for 400m at the Free State Championships in Bloemfontein, South Africa. It was a proud moment at home where the people who helped him reach success could witness from the stands. “My family has been an amazing support,” he says. “These are the people who made me who I am today. They get full credit…,” he told SABC News.
Van Niekerk is a new member of Team Visa, a group of world-class Olympic and Paralympic athletes who embody Visa’s values of acceptance, partnership and innovation. A role model to many, van Niekerk is also a spokesperson for Cartoon Network’s anti-bullying campaign in Africa.
Being good at sports was one reason van Niekerk himself was bullied as a child and he overcame it by not succumbing to it. “I remember days of feeling very lonely and separated from the other kids,” he recently told the Cartoon Network of Africa. “We want kids to know they are not alone and should not be afraid to speak out to friends and family.”
Through the Team Visa program, Visa has supported more than 1,000 Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls by providing them with financial and marketing support in the run up to and during the Olympic Games. Van Niekerk heads into the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, his first Olympic Games, as the reigning World Champion and, with nearly a century since South Africa won gold in the 400m at the Olympic Games, carries with him the hopes of a generation.
Theresa Gonzalez is a senior writer for Visa and the author of two Chronicle Books titles. She lives in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @theresagonzalez.
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