As Wayde van Niekerk smashed Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old 400m record to take Olympic gold, 74-year-old Ans Botha celebrated in the stands, her face a picture of delight.
She had reason to be overjoyed, for she had played a huge part in the historic victory – the first Olympic gold for a South African sprinter for almost a century – having taken over his coaching four years ago.
Tannie Ans, as she is known – Tannie means auntie in Afrikaans – is credited with bringing a no-nonsense approach to Van Niekerk’s preparations, with spectacular results.
Early in their relationship, she had the prescience to switch Van Niekerk from the 200m – the event he won in the national championships aged 18 – to the 400m, as she was concerned about the number of injuries he was picking up.
After his astonishing run, Van Niekerk spoke warmly of Botha. “She’s an amazing woman,” he said. “She has played a huge role in who I am today and kept me very disciplined and very focused on the role and who I need to be.”
As she attempted to get through the crowds to congratulate him, Botha ran into officials who did not believe the lady with the white hair was coach to an athlete whose achievement had overshadowed even Usain Bolt’s third successive 100m Olympic title.
“At every entrance there was security and they just wouldn’t let me go through,” she told the New York Times.
It was only when South African team officials intervened that the pair were able to enjoy a hug. “It wasn’t necessary to say anything,” she said. “We knew in our hearts and in our minds what we thought and what we had achieved.”
Van Niekerk first approached Botha, the head track and field coach at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein since 1990, in 2012. Despite her almost 50 years of coaching, worry over the responsibility of training a world-class talent accompanied the excitement she felt, Botha said.
But Van Niekerk flourished under her tutelage, really making his mark on the world stage last year when he won the 400m gold at the World Championships in the fourth fastest time in history. It turned out to be a mere prelude to his 43.03sec winning time in Rio.
It was a far cry from when Botha took up her first role in her native Namibia in 1968, primarily to help her children who were looking to follow in her footsteps – she had been a sprinter in her youth.
Like Van Niekerk, who explained that arriving five minutes early for training was late in Botha’s eyes, her other athletes praise her methods – coupling discipline with a caring approach.
Botha said: “I dearly love all my athletes but it’s about being strict ... We can laugh, but when we have to work hard, we work hard.”
She said she had no plans to retire. “You’re never too old to learn. I still love coaching and I still love my athletes,” Botha said.
“So I can’t see a reason why I would go and sit down and play with my fingers.”
This article was written by Haroon Siddique, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 16th August 2016 16.46 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010