74-Year-Old Gold Medal Coach Deserves More Respect

Why are we talking about the hairstyle of this 'great-grandmother?'

I’m a mother of two with wavy blonde hair. These facts are important to me, my loved ones and the hairdresser to whom I give an embarrassing percentage of my paycheck every six weeks. But I sure hope that those interesting tidbits are left on the cutting room floor if I ever make national news for doing something extraordinary — such as, say, coaching an Olympic Gold Medal winner.

Like many people around the globe, I was delighted and touched by the story of South African runner Wayde van Niekerk, who set a new world record in the Men’s 400 meter sprint at the Olympic Games Sunday in Rio. The regard the 24-year-old had for Anna Botha, his 74-year-old coach, was clear as he spoke about her:
“She’s really kept me very disciplined on the goal and where I need to be,” he told Fox Sports.

“I’m really grateful I can go on the track and say my coach has pushed me to reach every level and believe anything is possible.”

Do you remember the late Herb Brooks, father of two, the one who parted his brunette sports-cut on the left (or was is the right)?

“She’s an amazing woman. She’s played a huge role in what I am today.”

Splitting Hairs

Unfortunately, the news outlets quoting him didn’t show her the same level of respect.

“Wayde van Niekerk smashed the 400m world record thanks to a great-grandmother’s coaching,” announced The Daily Mail, emphasizing her maternal status in the headline (which has since changed) and — in case you missed it the first time — the subheadline: “Van Niekerk beat Michael Johnson’s longstanding record and a great-grandmother’s coaching was a huge part of it.”

If it were only The Daily Mail, which is known for its over-the-top headlines — and ginormous readership — I could look the other way. But CNN didn’t do much better.

In the fourth paragraph of a story titled, “Wayde van Niekerk: The 74-year-old coach behind South African’s golden run at Rio 2016,” Botha is described as “a great-grandmother of four with a neat wave of white hair.”

Later on in the story, we learn that Botha is a former sprinter and long jumper who has been the head coach of track and field at University of the Free State in Bloemfontein since 1990. Her career began years earlier, coaching her daughter in their homeland of Namibia. But details about Botha’s career have been sketchy.

Another Gold Medal Coach

I’m from Minnesota, where the “Miracle on Ice” is still a point of pride. Do you remember the late Herb Brooks, father of two, the one who parted his brunette sports-cut on the left (or was is the right)? He’s the guy who coached the 1980 U.S. hockey team to Olympic gold, upsetting the Russians against all odds. Imagine that? A middle-aged brunette father? Amazing.

I clicked back on The Daily Mail story again today, and it’s been updated. Now the headline reads: “‘It was a massacre!’ Michael Johnson hails South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk after he smashes his 19-year 400m world record…thanks to his coach, a great grandma, 74.”

And just below that, there’s this: “Mrs. Botha began coaching athletes in the 1960s and is well respected.”

Imagine that.

By Heidi Raschke
Heidi Raschke is a longtime journalist and editor who previously was the Executive Editor of Mpls-St. Paul Magazine and Living and Learning Editor at Next Avenue. Currently, she runs her own content strategy and development consultancy.@heidiraschke

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