Sprinting powerhouse Isaac Makwala is the fastest African over 400m in history and the quickest one day 200m and 400m sprinter there has ever been. SPIKES meets the the 28-year-old who only began to tap in to his true potential after returning home.

Issac Makwala was playing as a right winger for his school football team in the village of Tutume in north-east Botswana when his running ability was first recognised. He might have been a soccer mad, Wayne Rooney obsessed, Manchester United fan, but he was persuaded by a teacher to try his hand at athletics.

He was good, but it wasn’t until 2006, when the 19-year-old Makwala finished third at the 2006 Botswanan Championships and won selection as a reserve for the African Championships in Mauritius, that he knew just how good he could be. “It was then that I realised I had a talent,” he admits.

In 2007 he won the 4x400m gold medal for Botswana at the All African Games and went on to appear in the long relay at that year's world championships in Osaka.

Later that year he won a scholarship to attend the IAAF High Performance Training Centre in Dakar, Senegal, where he would be coached by Ivorian Anthony Koffi. Makwala described the move from south east Africa to the continent’s west coast as “a big challenge”, but one that he does not regret making.

“I didn't speak French, the food was different, everything was different,” he says. “It was a big decision, but a good decision.”

He worked hard, gained experience and improved. At the 2008 All African Games he blasted to his first ever sub-46 second time to record 45.64 for silver – missing out on gold by just a few thousandths of a second to Sudan's Nagmeldin Ali Abubakr.

That year, he comfortably dipped under the Beijing Olympic B qualification mark. Yet to his huge “disappointment”, selectors opted for two athletes who had run the A standard the previous year and he was overlooked for the team that went to China. 

He returned in 2009 and ran 45.56, which saw him earn selection for the individual 400m at the World Championships in Berlin, where he exited in the heats. The following year he was a semi-finalist at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and African Championships.

Isaac Makwala ()

Makwala at the Berlin world champs, his first as an individual, where he crashed out in the 400m heats

Though he clearly had talent, Makwala wasn’t quite dining at athletics’ top table. His career might have stalled had he not won a dream scholarship to train under Glen Mills at the High Performance Centre in Jamaica. It was completely out of the blue, and he flew out in March 2011 to begin training alongside the likes of double Olympic champion Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake – the latter becoming 100m world champ later that year.

“I was just excited to be there and prove myself,” says Makwala. “Coach Mills is the best coach in the world and I had such a great experience there.”

Makwala failed to qualify for the 2011 Daegu World Championships, but by 2012 the strides that he was making began to yield results. He won the African title in Benin in a personal best time of 45.25 and qualified for London 2012 – his first Olympics – where he exited in the heats.

Though Makwala says he made significant improvements to his sprint technique and 400m pacing during his time in the Caribbean, that scholarship soon ended and he was back to the Botswanan capital of Gaborone, where he would begin to train under coach Justice Dipeda.

The move home came after his somewhat underwhelming performance at London 2012. Removing himself from the competitive environment and coaching expertise he enjoyed in Jamaica did not turn out to be a bad thing. On the contrary: returning to home comforts appears to have pushed him on to the next level.

The following season he made a massive advance, not in his speciality, but the 200m. At La Chaux-de-Fonds in July he wiped a stunning 0.52 from his personal best over the half-lap distance, setting a national record 20.21.

Later that month in Sweden, he set a Botswanan 100m record despite limping across the line with a hamstring injury. Far from fully fit, he ran the 200m at the Moscow World Championships (again exiting in the heats) and posted a 45.15 relay leg for his country in the 4x400m.

Isaac Makwala ()

In 2014 only Kirani James (pictured) and LaShawn Merritt ran faster than Makwala over 400m

Buoyed by his best season yet, Makwala cut short his winter break at the end of 2013 to focus purely on endurance from October to December, not training in spikes until March. That strategy worked a charm. He set national 400m records in May (44.92) and June (44.83) in Potchefstroom and Ostrava respectively.

Then in early July he created history, posting the fastest ever same day 200m and 400m double (in the space of just 90 minutes) with a national record of 19.96 and African record of 44.01 at his – and everybody else's – favourite track of La Chaux-de-Fonds.

“I thought I might run around 44.3 after my run in Ostrava,” says Makwala. “The one that really surprised me was running sub-20 seconds.”

His two major championships in 2014 were to prove bittersweet. Badly hampered by running in the cold, he failed to progress beyond the semi-finals at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. But just two weeks later at the African Championships – and in the Marrakech heat that was more like home than the Scottish drizzle – he won 400m gold in 44.23 (the second fastest time in his career), 200m silver and 4x400m gold.

He then capped last season by helping Africa to 4x400m victory in the Continental Cup (also held in Marrakech). It would seem that there really is no place like home.

Following his most successful season to date, the man who runs with swears on running with sleeves is now targeting greater honours in 2015.

“I still see the 400m as my main event because I am far more consistent at it,” he says. “This year I want to win the Diamond League race, break through the 44-second barrier and I finish top three in Beijing.”