Meet Anna “Tannie Ans” Botha, the great-grandmother coach behind South Africa’s newly crowned 400m world champion Wayde van Niekerk.
Botha is counting down the days to her 74th birthday in three months’ time, but she has swag and oozes the energy of a teenager.
“I’m very blessed because I don’t have any health problems, and it is because I’m busy with young people – and you have to be high up there with them,” chuckled Botha, who was a sprinter and long jumper in her heyday.
She compares to grandpa coach Clive Barker in soccer – old school coaches who are great motivators and get the best out of their charges without pushing them too hard.
Botha said her “passion is too high” to stop coaching in a career spanning five decades.
The University of the Free State (Kovsies) head coach came close to tears when she described the massive responsibilities that came with handling the special talent that was Van Niekerk.
“I wouldn’t say I’m afraid … [long, deep breath] but I have such a big responsibility to get this athlete to develop to his full potential. Also, I need to try to do my very best not to do something wrong that might break him. This medal was planned three years ago,” said Botha, choked up with strong emotion.
“We had a meeting with his parents and planned how we were going to manage this – our situation, our goals and our ideals. The main thing is we listened to what his body said to us. If the body said stop, we stopped, or went a little softer.”
Botha said the 23-year-old’s potential grabbed her attention when Van Niekerk was a schoolboy who went on to finish fourth in the 200m final of the 2010 IAAF World Junior Championships in Moncton, Canada.
The two joined forces in October 2012 when Van Niekerk enrolled as a marketing student at Kovsies, where Botha has been the institution’s athletics coach for 25 years. He spent their first three months together rehabilitating some niggling injuries.
Before then, Botha’s significant international achievement was Thuso Mpuang’s silver (2011) and bronze medals (2009) from the World Student Games.
Now the veteran mentor has achieved the rare feat of ending the country’s century-long wait for a sprint medal in major competition.
Beijing was her first time at an IAAF World Championships, but she said she was not star-struck sharing the competition’s warm-up area tracks with the camps of star athletes such as Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and the US’s Justin Gatlin.
Instead, Botha said she learnt a few things she would try with her training group in Bloem.
“This was all new to me and was an amazing experience. I only stole [coaching ideas] with my eyes. That is, if I see something that will work on my athletes, I will try it and implement it. That’s how I always try to bring something new in our training. They have to enjoy training; that’s very important. They say you’re never too old to learn, especially in athletics,” said the great-grandmother of four.
Now that the hard job is done in Beijing, Botha said the SA 400m champion must get through this season without injuries.
“An injury-free season means my foundation to work on for next year will be stronger. Our goal for next year is for him not to over-race,” said Botha in reference to their build-up to next year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“Now we want to train in a manner in which we can strengthen his body to get stamina. Otherwise, he has a very strong mind.”
Looking back, Botha said her charge had come along really well in lowering his 400m times from 48 seconds three years ago to a now world-leading sub-44 second mark.
The South African sprinter’s winning time of 43.48 seconds in the final on Wednesday is ranked the fourth-fastest in history, three-hundredths of a second off Michael Johnson’s record of 43.18 seconds
Interview from August 2015