Olympic Gold Medalist And Richard Mille Ambassador Wayde Van Niekerk Talks Watches And Competition
Wayde van Niekerk had barely had time to catch his breath since his astounding Olympic win in the 400-meter race at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The South African athlete, who seemed less nonplussed about his gold medal than his new world record, had been on the go since his historic win, one that even saw training partner and friend Usain Bolt stop in his tracks in the middle of an interview to congratulate him.
After leaving Rio de Janeiro, 24-year-old van Niekerk and his modest entourage, which included manager Peet Van Zyl and now-famous grandmotherly 74-year-old coach Ans Botha, headed back to their training camp near Udine in Italy, where the sprinter received the key to the city of the town.
Taking his leave of Coach Botha, he and Van Zyl embarked upon a short European tour to visit sponsors and brand partners in the wake of the grueling Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Following stops with Adidas and T-Systems in Munich, where the soccer fan enthusiastically told of his opportunity to meet stars from the Bayern Munich team, van Niekerk found himself in Paris on a beautiful early fall day with Richard Mille.
There he continued designing what will soon become his very own watch model and took the time for an official photo shoot, in addition to giving a few one-on-one interviews.
All in all a grueling schedule, even if the young rising star didn’t really seem to mind so much. In fact, I would call his attitude at the very least humbling, certainly grateful, and most positively spirited.
His first watch. Ever.
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, van Niekerk comes from a family of athletes. His mother Odessa Swartz was likewise a runner, while his cousin Cheslin Kolbe plays professional rugby – and was also present at the 2016 Rio Games as part of the 12-man South African squad.
When van Niekerk met with the Richard Mille watchmaker who visited him in Italy to deliver his timepiece about two weeks before the start of the Olympic Games, it marked the first time he had ever owned a watch.
I know it will be very hard not to have the same reaction I did when I heard this come straight out of his mouth. Check and make sure first there is no one else in the room (which was unfortunately not the case for me) before you let that wail loose: yes, Wayde van Niekerk’s very first watch – ever – is the Richard Mille RM 27-02 Rafael Nadal.
For in-depth information on his incredible watch, please see Richard Mille RM 27-02 For Rafael Nadal: The Quintessential Sports Tourbillon.
“And he had to be convinced!” Richard Mille interjected emphatically. “He was like Nadal, who said, ‘Ricardo, I will never wear a watch during match play. Never’.”
When Mille finally stopped gesticulating, van Niekerk gently continued, “But it didn’t take me that long to get used to wearing the watch. It’s quite easy to wear and light. Within a few days I was used to it. My main challenge was to actually remember it . . .” At this point the room full of people listening to us, including Mille, broke out in laughter.
“Before races I put my watch in my spikes so I don’t forget.”
When Richard Mille’s watchmaker delivered the watch to him, he not only adjusted the strap and made sure to explain how to wind the timepiece, he also gave him a loupe. As both van Niekerk and Van Zyl explained, the young sprinter loves to look at the movement inside his RM 27-02 with the loupe, caressing the minute details of his new good luck charm with his eye, taking in all the incredible minute pieces of machinery, though he admits that the finer details of the mechanics escape him.
But this predilection for peering into the watch’s depths has taught van Niekerk to understand all the work, skill, and craftsmanship that go into this timepiece. “It teaches me how to appreciate the finer details, and as an athlete I understand and appreciate the importance of details.”
Van Niekerk explained that he was at first a bit scared to put the watch on as he was uncomfortable with wearing something with a monumental price tag of 734,500 Swiss francs. But he soon got comfortable with thinking he is worthy of wearing such a thing. “I had to accept and believe that wearing the Richard Mille is what I’m worth as a person,” he humbly explained.
“I took that responsibility in a powerful and confident way,” he continued before relating that he believes that just being a Richard Mille ambassador provides him with the confidence to wear it.
As you can see, van Niekerk is a powerful and confident person, but also a real human being – which is very likely why Mille chose him to join his team of exceptional ambassadors. Mille has quite a nose for picking out genuine “family members” comprising ultra-successful athletes he can relate to on both personal and professional levels and who can convey his message in an authentic way.
This could happen to (almost) anyone
“It feels like second skin now,” van Niekerk explained of his watch. In Rio, he says, he didn’t even notice anymore that he had it on. “But the photos looked great afterward.”
He does not like the feel of the crown against his wrist, though, which he solves by sometimes wearing the watch on the opposite arm.
“I’m not used to the whole winding thing, either, so when I got the watch, after the first two days or so it stopped. I thought that maybe I had broken it. So I messaged my manager: ‘Something’s wrong with the watch, it’s not working’.”
Not long after, Van Zyl messaged back to explain how and why the sprinter needs to wind it. “Ah, it works like an old-school watch,” van Niekerk grinned as he recounted the light bulb.
“That happened to Felipe Massa at the beginning too,” Mille once again interjected. “And to Nadal!”
“I was so worried that I had bumped my arm against something and broke it,” van Niekerk laughed. “Now I can wind it all day!”
Richard Mille fans can look forward to a watch created for and with van Niekerk in the near future, though the duo as yet declines to reveal any details of the in-progress project. “Every time you do something [with one of the ambassadors] it’s a very different development,” says Mille, who cites Formula 1 and Bubba Watson as great testing grounds for shock and G force testing as well as the runners van Niekerk and Yohan Blake for comfort. “This makes it so interesting.”
Love at first sight
Mille and van Niekerk personally met only in Rio, the day before the runner’s first heat. Mille fondly remembers that van Niekerk said, “Maybe tomorrow I’ll have a surprise for you.” Of course, he meant the world record in addition to the gold medal. “The gold medal was something ‘quite normal’; they wanted to ‘add’ something,” Mille quipped.
Van Zyl jumped in here to explain that van Niekerk had already run 42 seconds – a world record time – during practice, forcing Coach Botha to adjust the training program for the last week before the Games, adding in more endurance work before returning to pushing speed just a few days before Rio so he wouldn’t blow himself out. This is top performance-level strategy.
“So we knew something special was coming,” Van Zyl confirmed.
Going for gold
If you watched the Olympics live or googled van Niekerk’s interviews following his big win in Rio, you probably know that aside from the moment the race ended, he has shown not quite as much continuing emotion over the gold medal as one might have expected him to do.
He admitted to me that before the start of a race, he is a jumble of emotion, thought, and pressure – all of which just “exploded” in him in Rio, pushing him on to higher purpose and explosive return.
But in answer to the question as to what he thought after the race was over, he explains that he felt humbled, falling to the ground to thank God.
“To me it’s way more than the gold medal. The gold medal represents so much more: tears, hard work, dedication, discipline, teamwork. It would be quite selfish of me to lust over such a medal with such a team around me who brought me to where I am. I have the god-given talent, but I need the right people around me to move forward. So to me it was a great way of representing them and a form of thanks to the Lord and the people around me . . . and my family and team to keep me on the right path. I never have to worry or stress about anything external. It is just so much more than that gold medal.”
“When I have disappointing moments and cry, all of them are crying with me,” the humble sprinter continued. “When I have happy moments, they cry, so…. it’s just way more than that.”
“Wayde really has a fantastic coach and a fantastic manager,” Mille interjected right then. “Really . . . you know, I have refused to sign with fantastic athletes before because of their managers. I don’t want to make him blush, but it’s true. It’s a long-term relationship, when you create a base like that . . . we work like a family.”
So what is more important to van Niekerk: the gold medal or the world record? He barely hesitated before answering. “Looking at the times [leading to the world record] symbolizes growth,” he resolutely answered.
Knowing Usain Bolt from other events and training also gives him confidence. “He gave me some words of wisdom, too.”
Van Niekerk also explained that he doesn’t set goals per se. However, in training he had already broken that world record set by Michael Johnson, so he knew he was capable of repeating that performance in Rio. And he did.
After a rarified weekend spent with Richard Mille at the Chantilly Arts & Elegance classic car event, van Niekerk finally went home to South Africa in mid-September, where he was welcomed like the returning hero he was.
And while this sort of attention was certainly somewhat uncomfortable for the humble 24-year-old, there’s one thing I’m guessing he enjoyed above all else: time to catch his breath.
For more information, please visit www.richardmille.com/watch/rm-27-02.
Quick Facts Tourbillon RM 27-02 Rafael Nadal
Case: 47.77 x 39.7 x 12.25 mm, NTPT carbon and TPT quartz, a material co-developed by Richard Mille and North Thin Ply Technology; bezel and case back assembled directly onto the NTPT base plate; water-resistant to 50 m; sapphire crystal on front
Movement: manually wound caliber with one-minute tourbillon weighing 3.35 g; 70 hours power reserve; certified to withstand 5,000 Gs
Functions: hours, minutes
Limitation: 50 pieces
Price: €777,000 / 734,500 Swiss francs