Highlander Highlight

Planting Roots

Runner Heinrich Van Niekerk’s many talents are in full bloom at UCR.

By Omar Shamout

When someone suggested to Heinrich Van Niekerk last year that he should look into transferring to UC Riverside, the 22-year-old cross-country and track athlete had to Google it.

“I had no idea where Riverside was,” Van Neikerk said.

Born and raised in Pretoria, South Africa, Van Neikerk enrolled at Oklahoma State University after high school in 2015 because of its top-notch reputation in the running world. But things didn’t turn out the way he expected. A succession of injuries mounted, and Van Neikerk’s relationship with his coach soured. So he went in search of a university that would — first and foremost — meet his academic interest in plant sciences.

As it turned out, Google helped seal the deal.

“When you open up Google Earth and see all the nurseries around (Riverside), that’s when I thought, this is the right place,” Van Neikerk said.

The son of nursery owners, Van Niekerk fell in love with plants at an early age as he and his brother Stefan, now 20, would run around his parents’ garden center as kids. A few years later, the siblings started growing their own plants, and eventually, breeding them in the back yard. Now, the operation has expanded to greenhouses, and the brothers sell a variety of species, mostly succulents, to his parents’ nursery and other customers in South Africa.

Van Niekerk video chats with his brother, who handles the financial side of the business, at least once a week to see how things are going. Over the summer, Van Niekerk goes home to plant and breed new products to sell the following year.

After he graduates from UCR, Van Niekerk hopes to open retail centers in Southern California to sell the plants he and his brother grow in Pretoria.

“It’s very cheap to grow in South Africa and then to import the plants into the U.S.,” he said. “You get so much more for what you would have gotten back home.”

These days, the lanky, blonde South African is enjoying his classes and learning more about the art of plant breeding. He often wanders around campus taking photos of the many interesting varieties of plants dotting the grounds. While his favorite place at UCR is the Botanic Gardens, you can also find him at the citrus groves learning tips on irrigation from the agricultural operations staff.

Van Niekerk has also rediscovered his passion for running, a sport he took up at the age of 10 in order to impress a girl. There was a time at Oklahoma State when he wondered if he would ever compete again.

“After speaking to Coach (Robert) Hansen, I told him that I was rundown. He really understood what happened,” Van Niekerk said. “That’s something a lot of college coaches don’t understand. They wouldn’t recruit a guy that got injured. Coach Hansen has really lifted my morale up, and I’m back to where I used to be in high school.”

Van Niekerk won the South African junior 800-meter title in 2014 and 2015, and he took the South African high school 800-meter crown in 2014.

Since joining UCR in fall 2017, he has set a personal record in both the 800 and 1,500 with times of 1:50.06 and 3:52.15, respectively.

Despite his passion for running, Van Niekerk acknowledged that sometimes his curiosity gets the best of him during training.

“People normally look in front of them, and they just run,” he said. “I run around looking everywhere. I’ll occasionally stop in the middle of a run and just look at things.”

Lying at the root of Van Niekerk’s love of plants is the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes with growing something from the ground up.

“Some people look at their bank balance and say, ‘Oh, it’s growing,’ and feel happy about it. I look at plants and think, wow, that’s awesome; I did that.”