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Wayde Van Niekerk, one of the fastest men on earth, is coached by a great grandmother

Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa wins the gold medal in the men's 400m final.
Reuters/Murad Sezer
Out in front.
By Lily Kuo
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

South African sprinter Wayde Van Niekerk ran the fastest 400-meter race in history at the Rio Olympics on Sunday (Aug. 14), breaking a 17-year-old world record and winning his country’s first 2016 gold medal. Niekerk completed the single lap in 43:03 seconds, beating the previous record set Michael Johnson by 0.15 seconds.

Fans in Rio cheered, especially one: his coach Ans Botha, better known as “Tannie Ans,” a 74-year-old great grandmother of four who has been a track-and-field coach since the 1960s.

“She’s an amazing woman,” Van Niekerk told reporters after the win. “I’m grateful I could trust in her work, and I think it speaks for itself. What she’s achieved as a coach—I’m just thankful to be part of the history she’s made.”

Botha first noticed Van Niekerk in 2010 at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Canada, where the young runner finished fourth. Two years later she began coaching Van Niekerk, a marketing student at the University of Free State in Bloemfontein, where Botha was the head athletics coach. Under her tutelage, Van Niekerk has shaved four seconds off his personal best in the 400-meter race.

Botha has said that she has learned about coaching Van Niekerk from watching other great runners. At the IAAF World Championships in Beijing last year when Van Niekerk ran the 400-meter race in 43.48 seconds and became the fourth fastest man in history, Botha said she took home a few lessons from sharing the warm-up area with Usain Bolt from Jamaica and Justin Gatin from the United States.

“They have to enjoy training; that’s very important,” she told City Press, a South African paper. “They say you’re never too old to learn, especially in athletics.”

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