Thus far, 2018 has been a year of milestones for South Africa’s new world junior 400m hurdles champion, Sokwakhana Zazini.
Zazini turned 18 on 23 January, but he couldn’t celebrate because the athletics season had already begun. He went on to win both the 400m and 400m hurdles at the SA National Junior Championships before giving Lindsay Hanekom the hurry-up in the senior championships, finishing a close second. His most recent conquest came in the form winning gold at the 2018 IAAF World U20 Championships in Tampere, Finland, in July 2018.
With five months still to go in the year, there’s no telling what’s next for Zazini in the way of winning.He has been selected for the SA senior squad to compete in the African Championships in August, after which he will need to shift his focus to passing his learner’s licence and matric exams at the TuksSport High School in Pretoria. He will then close off his stellar year with the ultimate coming-of-age ritual for a Xhosa male when he goes to circumcision school in his hometown of Burgersdorp in the Eastern Cape.
If all of this sounds a bit overwhelming for the demure teenager, who weighs just 66kg, fret not. According to his coach Hennie Kriel, few people are better equipped to handle pressure than Zazini, who is so focused he seems to have accessed the mythical “zone” sports people keep prattling on about.
He’s got a cool head, what some people call the X-factor.
“His strength is his ability to perform under pressure,” said Kriel after his charge won the 400m hurdles in Finland. “He’s got a cool head, what some people call the X-factor. He doesn’t get fazed by pressure and you don’t have to talk a lot to him.
“An example of that was during the warm-up for his semifinal at the world champs. I told him he needed to step it up and his response was: ‘Don’t worry, coach, I’ll go sub-50 (seconds),’ which he did by running a 49.43 in wet conditions – a great performance.”
Zazini followed up his semifinal with the one that really mattered, a 49.42 seconds win in the final, which to Kriel was more than a broad hint of the young athlete’s potential: “It showed us the quality of the boy. He’s a world-class athlete who is now a world youth champion and a world junior champion, and the record holder for the under-18 category [48.84 seconds].”
Zazini, who grew up in Mzamomhle township in Burgersdorp has more trouble explaining where his competitiveness and calm under the pump comes from than he does dominating the best the world has to offer on the track. “I guess the pressure will always be there,” he said. “I just tell myself I can handle it, that I’m ready for anything. I deal with it by listening to music to relax and not think about everybody around me and what can happen or all the what-if questions.
“I listen to Drake’s new album Scorpion and a lot of the tracks just take me to my own planet where I just think of myself, what I’m supposed to do and why I’m doing it. I don’t know where my competitiveness comes from, I think when I go on the blocks I switch on to some other level.”
Another planet is probably the best way to describe the extent of Zazini’s potential, especially seeing that he is as adept at running the 400m flat as he is running the hurdles (his 45.86-second run in Paarl, Western Cape, made him only the second South African teenager to run a sub-46-second 400m race in 24 years).
Such is the esteem in which he is held in local athletics circles that he is expected to be only the second South African athlete in history – after former high jumper Jacques Freitag – to win World Youth, World Junior and World Championship gold medals, and the fact that he has already won the first two by the tender age of 18 suggests there is merit to all the fuss being made of him.
The significance of his performances this year is foregrounded by the difficult circumstances under which they were achieved. According to Kriel, Zazini has struggled with persistent lower back issues that affect his groin; and he couldn’t secure races in Europe leading up to the IAAF event, meaning he was not fully prepared when he got to Finland.
Zazini’s global recognition is a far cry from his humble origins.
Zazini’s global recognition is a far cry from his humble origins as the son of a young single mother, Yoliswa, a cashier at a Foschini store.
“It was tough growing up but you also didn’t want to show that you were struggling. My mother always wanted the best for me and always sacrificed everything to make me fit in with the other kids. She’s a strong woman and I’m grateful for that,” said Zazini.
Yet he was still able to do the impossible for most people in his situation. “When I was young I saw all the guys running hurdles and as a kasi boy I just wanted to experience it. I told my coach at primary school I wanted to try hurdles and he said it could actually work. We tried it and it worked.
“I find hurdles a bit more interesting because you have to focus on running and jumping at the same time. It’s a bit challenging and not as easy as it looks, but it feels so natural I feel like it’s in my blood.”
Zazini said his father had been there at first but left not long after he was born: “You know how some fathers disappear. I can’t remember exactly when he left, but I don’t want to think about those things because they’re going to distract me from my goals and dreams. I just want to focus on myself, my mum and my siblings [brother Singalakha (12) and sister Achongiwe (6)].”
While the full scholarship to attend TuksSport High School was a blessing, it meant he had to leave Hoerskool Burgersdorp in Grade 9, which was trying for a 15-year-old: “At first it was really tough. I wanted to go home and I didn’t really like it but my mum said ‘just hang in there’. I did and now I’m one of the top guys here.”
Looking at the remnants of his to-do list, which basically includes transposing his dominance into the senior categories, Kriel said his charge had a lot to do, like getting his 400m time under 45 seconds and sorting out his stride pattern to complement his “high levels” of natural endurance.
Asked what Zazini’s ceiling was, performance-wise, Kriel was not sure where to put it: “He’s right up there with the best I’ve coached and he’s got a great racing temperament. He’s not a talker but he’s got a lot of self-belief and does his talking on the track. He’s a huge talent, the key for him will be staying healthy and motivated.”