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Kiwi sprint stars can still eke out more speed

The young Kiwi sprint quartet who won bronze in the 4x100m relay at the World University Games - setting a new NZ record - can still go faster on the world stage, they tell Sarah Cowley Ross. 

“New Zealand needs to stop and take notice - these girls could be an epic part of athletics history.”

This alert comes from James Mortimer – a former New Zealand sprinter, who’s now a national women’s relay coach.

The “girls” are four talented speedsters who’ve just made history winning New Zealand’s first medal in a 4x100m relay, at the World University Games in Naples.

And those women and their coach are confident that they can go much faster, and much further on the world track stage.

The team of student athletes - Olivia Eaton, Zoe Hobbs, Georgia Hulls and Natasha Eady - won the bronze medal at the world’s second-largest multi-sport competition last weekend, and in doing so, set a new New Zealand record of 44.24 seconds.

“We know we can go faster if we all can make personal improvements to our speed and we hope we can push our changes out more,” says Hulls.

“The result is so amazing,” adds Eady. “We certainly didn’t think we’d be ranked third fastest after our heat. We thought we could make the final because we’ve been working hard together as a squad since the end of 2018, but anything can happen in relays.”

The 4x100m relays at major championships are always fraught with drama. The baton must be exchanged within the 20m changeover zone, with athletes wanting to push the boundaries of the exchange so that the ongoing runner is at their fastest so as not to lose baton speed.

New Zealand’s athletics team coach in Naples, Elena Brown - a silver medallist in the Russian relay team at the 1991 world track and field championships - says the relay team’s performance strategy in Naples was to “bring the baton to the finish line”.

“Perfect, but risky, changes is the next challenge in the team’s development," Brown says.

Three of New Zealand's 4x100m relay stars - Georgia Hulls, Zoe Hobbs and Olivia Eaton - race each other in the 200m final of this year's national track and field champs. Photo: Getty Images. 

When the incoming relay runner hits a mark set out on the track, the outgoing runner accelerates towards the changeover zone. By extending the distance of this mark, the outgoing runner will be at higher speed when they receive the baton, but they will also receive it later in the change zone - which is where both the risk and potential reward lies.

“Zoe and I can push our mark from 25 [foot measures] potentially out to 27 in the future,” explains Eaton. “While it doesn’t like sound much, if we want to go fast and get to the competitions we want to get to, we need to be absolutely going for it.

“The other big difference will be when we’re all fresh for the relay.”

Eaton also raced in the 200m heats at the university games. In four days, Hobbs competed in six races - reaching the finals of the 100m (eighth) and 200m (seventh) - before running in the final of the relay. Hulls also ran in the 4x400m relay heat.

Going into the Games, the team were confident based on a successful build-up in New Zealand, supported by other squad members Brooke Somerfield, who ran in the team in the qualifying heat in Naples, and Briana Stephenson, who ran a leg in the 4x400m relay alongside Hulls.

“The final result is so much more than the four of us who ran in the final,” says Eady. “We have girls here and girls at home who helped qualify the team, who are all part of this result.”

The core of the group has been together since the 2016 world junior championships in Poland, when the team crossed the finish line in a time of 44.52s - only to be disqualified for a lane infringement. The time would have shaved 0.08s off the 2001 national record set by Rebecca Wardell, Caro Willis (neé Hunt), Jane Muir (neé Arnott) and Chantal Brunner.

It was Hobbs - the team standout and NZ resident 100m record holder (11.37s) - who unfortunately stepped on the lane markings three years ago.

“We’ve definitely had something to prove this time, because we knew the time we could run and what we are capable of,” say Eaton, who’s also a world champion beach sprinter.

From that 2016 team, Marlborough sprinter Lucy Sheat is currently returning from injury, and the squad did not include more senior athletes such as Aucklanders Portia Bing and Livvy Wilson. Such depth to potentially come into the team, combined with a group of talented youngsters in the junior grades, means that this is a team with genuine potential in the years to come.

For now, though, Mortimer (who wasn’t in Italy due to the birth of his son, Knox) believes that the relay is the best chance these young sprinters have of competing on the world stage at major competitions like the Olympics.

“The girls need to keep training hard, getting personally faster and come together as a team more often,” says Mortimer, who ran in the New Zealand senior men’s 4x100m relay team at the 2003 world championships in Paris and the 2006 Commonwealth Games. 

Brown agrees that the future is looking bright, as the squad is so young and this new level of performance and international success will inspire further achievements.

Their next goal is to qualify for the world championships and the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

To qualify for Tokyo 2020 Olympics may be a stretch. It would require a top eight finish at the 2019 world championships in Doha - which the team have yet not qualified for - or being ranked in the next best eight teams within the qualifying period.

Getting more competition opportunities will be critical to maintain this team’s momentum, says Mortimer, but it will require more support and funding.

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