Sprinters on Fire!

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To say that South African sprinting is looking good right now would be one of the biggest understatements ever made in the history of track and field in this country, because so far this year we’ve seen the men’s 100m, 200m and 400m SA records fall and the women’s 100m record equalled, we’ve seen two more SA men join the elite sub-10-second club in the 100m, we’ve had two sprinters crowned World Champions, and we’ve seen Ilse Hayes become the fastest female Para-athlete of all time. The sprinters in SA are well and truly on fire at the moment! – BY SEAN FALCONER

Part 1: The Sub-10 Club

Up until just over a year ago, sprinting in South Africa appeared to be stuck under the same ceiling it had reached in the late 1980s. Johan Rossouw’s 100m record for men of 10.06 seconds had been on the record books since 1988, while Evette De Klerk’s women’s record of 11.06 had stood since 1990. Simon Magakwe did equal the men’s record in 2012, and Geraldine Pillay was just one hundredth of a second out in 2005 with her 11.07, but both marks still stood in 2014, like fortress walls defying a besieging army. Then everything changed.

Dipping under 10
On 12 April 2014, Simon Magakwe burst past not only the SA record, but also became just the 90th man in the world to go under the 10-second barrier, as he clocked 9.98 at the SA Champs meet in Pretoria! (In second place was Akani Simbine, who also dipped under the old record as he ran 10.02.) Unfortunately, Simon was banned for two years for a doping-related violation in December 2014, leaving a cloud of suspicion hanging over his sub-10 performance, but happily that is now no longer of much concern, thanks to the scintillating performances of Akani and Henricho Bruintjies in recent weeks.

Midstream-banner-scaled Sprinters on Fire! Features

On 1 July Akani clocked 9.99 as he won the 100m in the European Athletics Classics Meeting in Slovenia (with Henricho finishing second in 10.15), thus giving SA its second sub-10, and the first not only at sea-level, where times are traditionally a little slower than at altitude, but also in an international race. “I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the time I had run, but with a good start it was easy for me to put the rest of my race together,” he said shortly after the run. “To run 9.99 seconds in a ‘minus headwind’ is very special, but it was more a relief that I was able to get this out of the way. I said I was going to run nine seconds in Europe and I fulfilled my promise. And in the right conditions, against the right competitors, there is no reason why I won’t be able to do so again.” How true that would turn out to be…

The record goes… and goes again
The proverbial dust had barely settled on Akani’s PB before Henricho also joined the sub-10 club four days later at the Resisprint International meeting in Switzerland, with an incredible 9.97 to take the SA record and become our third sub-10 sprinter, in spite of a bad start. “The first 30 metres were bad, but then I caught the guys and just ran away from them,” says Henricho. “When I saw the time I was just running around and screaming. It was a really great moment! Then I phoned my sister back home to tell my mom that I had broken the 10-second barrier.”

And then the unbelievable happened just five days later as Akani won the 100m final at the World Student Games in Gwangju, South Korea on 10 July, equalling Henrichos time with another 9.97, having won the semi-final in 10.00 seconds. Once again quite understated after a scintillating performance, he simply said, “I am very happy with my run. I never thought about running a fast time, it was more important for me to win the gold medal, so I concentrated on getting through my phases and to stay relaxed. At 60 metres I was able to relax a bit and just powered through.”

Friends, housemates and rivals
Interestingly, Akani and Henricho are both studying at the University of Pretoria and training at the High Performance Centre, but with different coaches, and they live in the same student house on campus. Off the track they are good friends and often support each other’s racing, but on the track the friendship is temporarily put away. “On the track it is each one for himself, and may the best man win,” says Henricho. “Afterwards we will play video games again. Normally, Akani beats me in that.”

While Henricho missed the Student Games due to a tight gluteal muscle, both will now focus on preparing for the World Champs in Beijing, China at the end of August, and then move on to the Rio Olympics next year. Besides hoping to do well individually, they should also be part of the SA 4x100m relay team, with big expectations on their shoulders. The SA record in this event stands at 38.35 seconds, which saw SA finish fourth at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and which replaced the 38.47 mark that Team SA set in 2001 at the World Champs in Edmonton, Canada to claim the silver medal position. (We were later promoted to the gold medal position when the USA was stripped of the win due to one of its athletes being caught for doping). Just recently, the SA student relay team won bronze in South Korea at the Student Games with a 39.68 result, with Akani anchoring the team home, and with Henricho and Anaso Jobodwana (2012 Olympic 200m finalist who has run 10.13 this season as well as broken the SA record for 200m twice, clocking a best of 20.04) also in the mix for the full SA team, we could also see that SA record fall at last in Beijing, or Rio, hopefully with medals to go with the record.

Side Note: Leading sub-10 Nations
Jim Hines of the USA was the first athlete to break through the 10-second barrier for 100 metres in 1968, and thus far 106 athletes have broken 10 seconds. However, only 22 countries can lay claim to one of its athletes dipping under the 10-second barrier, and of those, only 11 have more than one sub-10 athlete. Thanks to Akani Simbine and Henricho Bruintjies, South Africa is now joint sixth on that list with three sub-10 sprinters.

1 United States 47
2 Jamaica 14
3 Nigeria 8
4 United Kingdom 6
5 Trinidad and Tobago 5
6 Canada 3
6 France 3
6 South Africa 3

Part 2: Carina equals Women’s 100 Record

South Africa’s sprint revolution continued in Madrid, Spain, on 11 July when Carina Horn sprinted to a time of 11.06 in the qualifying heat for the women’s 100 metres of the World Challenge Meeting, thus equalling Evette de Klerk’s 25-year-old South African record. She could ‘only’ manage a 11.10 in the final to clinch third place, citing tired legs for the slower time, but she was still ecstatic about her record-equalling heat, which is the fastest time run by a South African woman at sea level. “The conditions were ideal for the final, but unfortunately my legs were dead and I just could not get them to go faster. But I am looking forward to the rest of the season, and I think I still have a few good races left in my legs. I did not sleep a wink after I ran 11.06. Actually, I am still battling to believe that I have really done it!”

Carina started the revival of South African women’s sprinting last year when she ran times of 11.21 and 11.17 at European meetings. Then in recent weeks she clocked 11.19 and a (then) PB 11.16. Having moved to Linz, Austria to train with sprinting specialist coach Rainer Schopf, Carina has now seen her 100m PB plummet from 11.59 to 11.06, and she attributes this massive improvement to her training. “Rainer keeps emphasising that the 100m is a very technical race and he has me working on small technical details for hours on end to help me to become faster.” She has also focused on the indoor 60m event, to work on her explosive power, and earlier this season twice improved her own SA record, clocking 7.21 and then 7.20, so she could cause a surprise at next year’s World Indoor Champs.

Part 3: World Class, Wayde

In June Wayde van Niekerk showed that he was in fine form for the 2015 European season as he clocked 31.63 over the seldom-raced 300m distance at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Birmingham in the UK, setting a new SA and African record. He then followed that with an SA record 44.24 in the New York Diamond League meet to finally beat the old SA record of 44.59, jointly held by Arnaud Malherbe (1999) and Hendrik Mokganyetsi (2000). And he wasn’t done yet…

Next, on 4 July, he became the first South African to dip under 44 seconds as he crossed the line in 43.96 at the Paris leg of the Diamond League, setting a new SA and African record, and handing Olympic and Commonwealth champion Kirani James of Grenada his first loss of the year. But Wayde was not done yet: On 14 July he became the first SA sprinter to di under 20 seconds for the 200m, clocking 19.94! (This beat Ansao Jobodwana’s still shiny new SA record of 20.04.)

The good news is that Wayde thinks he can go even faster. “It wasn’t easy, but I think I planned it well and really felt good in the last 200m. The first 200m was a bit relaxed, but that meant I saved a lot for the last 200m. I just feel there should be more, and there’s definitely still room for improvement. My goal this year is to continue pushing myself to improve, and because Kirani is the guy who inspires me, my victory was even more special. I hope this was the beginning of great things ahead for me.”

Part4: World Champion status

South Africa’s latest world champion is Justine Palframan after she powered to a personal best 51.27 to win the 400m women’s sprint at the World Student Games in Gwangju, South Korea on 10 July. “I felt really good in the race and all the training paid off, especially the work we put into my finishing. I stuck to the race plan and I got a personal best time out of it,” said the Stellenbosch-based Maties student after her big win.

When asked how it compared to her 200m/400m SA Senior Championships double title win earlier this year on her home track in Stellenbosch, she said, “This is definitely my highest achievement. Winning the double at the SA Seniors was a great feeling, but in comparison this is a world title, and it feels great to go into the history books of the Universiade as a gold medallist. And I think I can go quicker. I had a very successful championship, going through three rounds successfully and still being able to produce a personal best, so I have no doubt that I have the ability to go faster, especially with more opportunities at international level coming up soon.”

Part 5: Fastest Woman Ever!

Ilse Hayes became the world’s fastest female para-athlete of all time when she sprinted to victory at the IPC Athletics Grand Prix in Sao Paulo, Brazil, at the end of April. Clocking 11.89 seconds, she took 0.02 off the previous overall fastest mark run by China’s T12 world record holder Guohua Zhou. (Ilse competes in the T13 category, but often races T12s in mixed races.) At the same meet, she added the 200m title the next day in 24.70, then in June she did the 100/200 double at meets in Italy and Germany as well, continuing her fine form as she builds up to the IPC World Champs in Doha, Qatar in October.

“My aim was to break the 100m World Record at the World Champs, but I did it in Brazil already. Getting the record just motivated me to train even harder, because records are there to be broken, and there’s nothing stopping me from doing it again. I just want to train harder, and maybe do it at an even bigger event – like the World Champs or the Paralympic Games in Rio.”

Ilse won gold in the long jump and silver in the 100m at the London Paralympic Games in 2012, an exact repeat of her medal haul at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, to go with the bronze she won in the 400m at the 2004 Athens Games. However, from 2012 to early 2014 she was plagued with various injuries and struggled to train consistently, until finding the right balance, which included withdrawing from the long jump to focus on the sprints. “I’ve put more focus on recovery, nutrition, and maintenance with the chiro – all things that have contributed to me being healthier, meaning I can give more on the track, which shows in my results.”

“I ran a PB at the 2014 SA Nationals, and after that came PB after PB, SA and African records, and now the World Record. The downside was not knowing I had broken it, but that’s one of the challenges of being visually impaired, and I couldn’t understand the Brazilian commentator, so I only heard later when I was at doping control. I’d like to go after the 200m World Record as well – it is 24.24 and I’m currently on a best of 24.27, but with stronger competition, working on the bend and getting my speed-endurance up, anything is possible.”

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