Athletics

Behind every fast man, there stands a gran

Wayde van Niekerk (gold medallist and new world record holder) and Tannie Ans Botha (coach). Picture: Roger Sedres/Gallo Images
Wayde van Niekerk (gold medallist and new world record holder) and Tannie Ans Botha (coach). Picture: Roger Sedres/Gallo Images

Johannesburg - When Anna Sofia Botha was a provincial sprinter and long jumper in her native Namibia in the 1950s, track and field was a world apart from the space-age pursuit it is these days.

“Those days, we didn’t have a synthetic track, we didn’t have a telephone and I’d never even heard of spikes,” says the woman who has come to be known as Tannie Ans by South Africans.

“For starting blocks, we used to find a stick and dig holes for our feet, and by the end of the meeting, there were so many holes on the track that you sort of looked for a pair that fitted your feet.”

More than 50 years later, Botha, who turns 75 next month, is still relevant in the sport as the great-grandmother who coached the outrageous talent that is 400m runner Wayde van Niekerk to become an Olympic gold medallist, and to be a world record holder.

The world’s reaction, on realising the white-haired lady always hanging around Van Niekerk was not his grandmother but his coach, has catapulted her into super stardom. When she did this interview, she had just returned from the International Festival of Athletics Coaching in Italy.

“I did a Q&A session about sprinting ... things are going so crazy. It’s just one thing after another,” she says.

Closer to home, recognition has come in the form of a South African Sports Awards nomination for coach of the year, alongside Mamelodi Sundowns’ Pitso Mosimane, Caster Semenya’s coach Jean Verster and Paralympics coach Suzanne Ferreira.

But she is not getting carried away: “I feel so excited as well as unsure about the nomination because I’m not the only one, which means there is no guarantee I’ll get it.

“But I’m honoured and humbled at having had so much recognition for my hard work and sacrifices – it’s nice to know you’ll be rewarded in the end.

“I’m so happy [sports star of the year nominee] Wayde got recognition as well because, not only has he put our university [University of the Free State] on the map, he’s put the country on the map. Things like this contribute to the togetherness of the country.”

The respect for what Botha, who moved to Bloemfontein 26 years ago, has achieved stretches as far as Jamaica, where even Usain Bolt’s coach Glen Mills reckons she is a talented coach.

“I met coach Mills in 2015 in Beijing after Wayde’s world title race,” she says about the friendship.

“He contacted our manager [Peet van Zyl] and said he’d like for him to arrange a meeting with us. We had a chat and after that he invited us for a training camp in Jamaica in June this year.

“After Wayde’s gold in Rio, I had the privilege of receiving the most wonderful email from him. I’ve printed it out and I’m going to frame it. That’s how special it is.”

She will not, however, share the contents of the correspondence.

All of this is a far cry from her day job as a dairy factory personnel manager in Namibia: “I used to work from eight to five and would coach afterwards. I taught myself everything. I started with my children and gradually got a small group of athletes together in Windhoek.”

The group of athletes included Olympic silver medallist Namibian runner Frankie Fredericks, who was still at school. A year ago, she was nervous about the responsibility to help Van Niekerk (24) realise his potential. Now that he’s broken the 400m record at such a young age, she is more relaxed.

“I’m so much more relaxed because I’ve had the privilege of guiding him to his dream of medalling at the Rio Olympics.

“By getting gold and the world record as well, we’ve got so much more than we hoped for.”

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