One blink - and Zoe’s our fastest woman

Snaring a record that stood for 25 years, young sprinter Zoe Hobbs has become the fastest Kiwi woman to run on New Zealand soil.

It took a winter in hibernation to get the best out of Zoe Hobbs.

The 21-year-old sprinter has had a flying start to 2019. In just her second race of the year, Hobbs ran the fastest time ever by a Kiwi woman in New Zealand - breaking Michelle Seymour’s New Zealand residents 100m record, of 11.52s, set back in 1994.

Running at the Capital Classic athletics meet in Wellington, Hobbs shaved a tenth of a second off the record, with a new time of 11.42s.

Then her aim became to run another tenth of a second faster - to equal Seymour’s 25-year-old New Zealand open record set in Melbourne.

One tenth of a second - that's equal to a blink of an eye.

At the weekend, Hobbs came half a blink closer to that elusive mark - running 11.37s at the Allan and Sylvia Potts Classic in the Hawke's Bay.

Hobbs - who’s been a runner since she was a five-year-old in Taranaki, eager to the beat the boys - puts her career-best form down to completing a full winter training load at home, and not travelling to compete at a major championship in 2018.

She also credits a shift in mindset to her newfound speed.

“I want to focus on being more relaxed when I compete. In the past, I’ve been more concerned about everything going on around me and wasting a lot of energy,” she says. That philosophy is obviously working.

Hobbs was simply happy to have run two personal bests. “It’s a great feeling because it’s been a while."

Her previous best - 11.53s – still stands as the national junior record, set at the semifinals of the 2016 world junior championships in Poland.

“At the end of last year, I ran two races where I was 0.01 seconds off my old PB. As much as it was exciting to be so close to my best, it was also frustrating,” she says.

Since starting athletics in her hometown of Stratford, Hobbs has always been the “fast kid”. She grew up playing a lot of sports, often trying to keep up with her older sibling.

“I remember going to watch my brother at the Pacific School Games in Melbourne with my mum and dad. We were in the stands and apparently I said to my parents that it was unfair that I wasn’t able to compete,” Hobbs recalls.

Her parents, Dorothy and Grant Hobbs, wisely told her: “Your time will come”.

They were right. Hobbs would go on to win the national secondary schools 100m title three years in a row. She's won the national senior women's title for the past two years.

She admits she wouldn’t be able to do what she’s doing without her parents' support, and she was thrilled they were in the stands to watch her record-breaking run in Wellington.

“She needs to go to Aussie and run against faster girls. It’s what I had to do."

 - New Zealand open 100m recordholder Michelle Seymour.

The former New Plymouth Girls High School student is thriving at her new base, AUT Millennium on Auckland’s North Shore, where she’s working under coach James Mortimer - a former New Zealand 110m hurdles record holder, who ran at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

“I used to train in Taranaki, often by myself on a grass track or rugby field after school,” Hobbs says. “Now everyday I’m surrounded by this high performance environment, with great training partners. It’s helped so much.”

Hobbs also works with power physiologist Dr Jamie Douglas on a strength and conditioning programme designed to create a more powerful sprinter.

Douglas is impressed with Hobbs’s outstanding turnover – the rate which her feet touch and push off from the track.

“Her ability to apply force quickly is exceptional. As she develops with training, the goal is to add further force to each step which would mean world-class turnover and world-class stride length,” he says.

Hobbs is in the Pathway to Podium (P2P) group within Athletics New Zealand – a nationwide programme that helps prepare emerging athletes to perform at the highest level of their sport. But at the end of last season, she was told if she wanted to stay in the group, she needed to show further improvement.

Coach Mortimer says it was a wake-up call for the young athlete, and he noticed a shift in focus heading into the winter, where she committed to starting the season strong.

“Zoe is a quiet professional. She turns up prepared for every session and knows her body well,” he says. “She doesn’t overdo it or under-do it, but she does what she needs to do well.”

While many may think that running 100m is simply about running as fast as you can to the finish line, sprinters have a detailed strategy over the distance.

Hobbs explains there are several phases to the 100m: from coming out of the blocks, to the drive phase, coming up into your stride and then finishing strongly.

“I have little sentences on the day, which I write down for every phase. So on the day I don’t need to think about it. My strongest part of my race is my start, so we’ve worked hard on me not locking up through the end part of the race,” she says.

Outside the track, Hobbs is studying for a Bachelor of Science in human nutrition at Massey University.

But her focus on the track is now to knock off Seymour’s national record. Both Hobbs and her coach feel that to take that next step she needs to run against faster women.

“Zoe responds well to competition, so we will compete at the ACT Championships in early February. She’ll line up against runners the likes of Melissa Breen, who is the current Australian national record-holder [in 11.11s],” says Mortimer. “They’ll push her and we hope Zoe will respond.”

Another very interested party in Hobbs’ progress agrees. Seymour - who’s now living overseas, but is in New Zealand for the summer – would like to see Hobbs break another of her longstanding records, but says the young athlete needs to be pushed more in favorable sprinting conditions.

“She needs to go to Aussie and run against faster girls. It’s what I had to do,” Seymour says. “It’s hard winning by [big] margins.”

Seymour rang to congratulate Hobbs on taking her residents record - finding out about it via her niece in London. She’s since watched footage of the race.

“It’s awesome that she’s broken the resident record, and I’m proud that it stood for very close to 25 years,” says Seymour, who ran for New Zealand at the 1990 and 1994 Commonwealth Games, and was coached by her father Brian Seymour.

Remembering back to the night she ran her fastest time – that no other Kiwi sprinter has come close to - Seymour says that on a hot still night in Melbourne, it felt easy. Australian Melinda Gainsford, a world indoor 200m champion, ran 11.22 that night, and Seymour was just a tenth of a second behind her.

Hobbs is now at the forefront of an exciting crop of young sprinters including world beach sprint champion Olivia Eaton, Lucy Sheat and training partners Livvy Wilson, Symone Tafuna’i and Georgia Hulls.

Mortimer says the relay is the best chance for our sprinters to make a national team to compete at a major international championship.

“We have the talent to be able to do that, but it’s about everyone committing. Hopefully the girls can show they’re worthy of support to be able to get into the top 16,” he says. A 4 x 100m relay team needs five or six runners, plus a coach to travel with the team.

“Anything can happen in relays trying to get a baton round, but you have to be there to have a chance,” he says.

In the meantime, Hobbs has qualified for the World University Games in Italy in July, where her first goal is to make the final, and then "go from there". The fast kid is taking it all in her exceptional stride.

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