New Zealand’s fastest woman Zoe Hobbs enjoyed a significant breakthrough performance in the capital city earlier this month. Steve Landells chats to the Auckland-based speedster about her exciting journey so far and her future aspirations.
It has been a long and at times frustrating two-and-a-half years since Zoe Hobbs saw the letters PB next to her name for her specialist event. But a little like London buses over the course of a stunning eight-day period, the 21-year-old sprinter has improved her PB not once and also posted a pair of New Zealand Resident records to boot.
Zoe opened up at the Capital Classic by blasting to an 11.42 clocking on her way to victory in Wellington and she has gone on to trim a further 0.05 from that time to come tantalisingly close to Michelle Seymour 26-year-old national record of 11.32.
“I was stoked to finally get a PB because my last PB (and national junior record) came at the 2016 World U20 Championships,” she explains. “I started to get frustrated when my time wasn’t dropping.
“I got to the end of the 2018 domestic season having not improved my time and took time to reflect and consider what changes needed to be made. It feels good to start the season so strongly as I’m someone who has doubted myself, especially if things are not going well.”
Raised in the small town of Stratford in Taranaki, Zoe has long spent life in the fast lane. Regularly beating the boys in school sprints from the age of five she went on to win a glut of gold medals at both the Colgate Games and New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships. Earmarked as one to watch, aged just 16 she reached the 100m semi-finals at the 2013 World U18 Championships in Ukraine.
After relocating to Auckland to study in 2016 she came under the guidance of her current coach, James Mortimer, the former New Zealand 200m and 400m hurdles champion, where her career underwent the next stage of development. Describing James as having “a positive, calm and approachable nature” to coaching, the combination quickly gelled and in their first year together she posted a national junior record time of 11.53 in the 100m heats at the World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Eventually exiting the semi-finals (where she finished fourth in 11.67) the then teenager was elated with her performance on the global stage.
“When I looked at the scoreboard and saw the time (of 11.53) I froze,” she recalls. “I am not normally someone who shows any kind of dramatic emotion but I must have shown a little because James said, ‘I think it is the first time I’ve seen you happy with your performance’. To set a PB was the main goal but to run a national record was a massive bonus.”
More success followed in a memorable 2017 domestic campaign. In her first year as a senior athlete, the long-legged Massey University Human Nutrition student claimed an impressive 100m (11.57) and 200m (23.85) double at the New Zealand Championships in Hamilton.
Yet her long streak of impressive results at key events came to an abrupt end at the 2017 World University Games in Taipei. Competing in temperatures in the mid-30c and high humidity, Zoe exited the 100m semi-finals in eighth, recording a relatively modest 11.85, and failed to advance beyond the 200m heats.
I was pretty disappointed with the way I performed,” she says. “I have taken a lot of learning away from that competition. Reflecting on it now, I see it as a positive because my experiences there have allowed me to prepare better for next time.”
During the 2017-18 domestic campaign, Zoe successfully retained her national 100m title but had to settle for bronze in the 200m – in what she regards as her secondary event. It was far from a disastrous campaign, she also won 100m silver at the Australian Championships, yet it was tinged with disappointment that the sprint ace’s best 100m time was 11.66.
“My biggest aim, like any athlete, for the season was to improve, so that was disappointing,” she says. “I think I’ve learnt since then what I respond to best in training. Last year I was battling towards the end of the domestic season with a recurring niggle but I’ve made it a high priority this season to try and prevent that from happening again, keeping my body injury free.
Returning to winter training in 2018 with renewed purpose and a point to prove, Zoe has enjoyed an excellent preparation for the current domestic campaign. Unlike in previous years – where she has had to cut training short to compete at major championships in the Northern Hemisphere – she has enjoyed an unbroken stint of winter training.
She has also prospered as part of a strong training group, which includes former New Zealand U20 400m champion Georgia Hulls, Livvy Wilson, who set a 100m PB of 11.77 at last weekend’s Potts Classic, and Symone Tafuna’I, a 12.10 100m athlete.
“Having a group to train with definitely makes training more fun and motivating,” explains Zoe. “We all get along very well as a group and we bring the best out in one another, which is the beauty of the environment. The longer reps are probably my biggest weakness in training, so to have the others there to challenge me has been a massive help.”
Zoe, who trains five times a week on the track and twice a week in the gym at AUT Millennium on Auckland’s North Shore, also believes she is at her strongest thanks to the work of strength and conditioning coach Jamie Douglas.
Meanwhile, the North Harbour Bays athlete also insists she has made great gains in controlling her nerves and excitement leading into races.
“I’ve noticed in the past, if I got too excited or over-hyphed before a race I would waste energy, so I try to relax more,” she says. “In past competitions, I used to get too distracted by what others were doing but I’m working on blocking that out. My motive now is just to focus on what I have the power to control.”
The Taranaki-raised sprinter hinted she was set for something special with a pair of 11.54 100m clockings – both within 0.01 of her lifetime best – in pre-Christmas meets in Auckland and Christchurch, respectively.
Yet it was a trip to the Capital Classic and that scintillating 11.42 performance which finally gleaned that breakthrough PB. Setting a New Zealand resident record in the process, Zoe was humbled to receive a congratulatory call from previous record-holder Michelle Seymour.
Just eight days later at the Potts Classic in Hastings she ran a blistering 11.37 to produce another stunning run and loom within 0.05 of Seymour’s national record
With the ACT meet in Canberra, a possible outing at the Auckland Championships plus appearances at New Zealand nationals and Australian nationals on the horizon there could be plenty of opportunities to take down the long-standing mark.
Beyond that, Zoe’s primary goal in 2019 will be a strong performance in the 100m at the World University Games in Naples. While she also not ruled out achieving the demanding World Championship qualification mark for the women’s 100m of 11.24.
Longer term the goal is competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics but whatever happens, Zoe will trying to run fast for as long as she can.
“The thing I love most about athletics is that the onus is on you,” she says. “It isn’t easy to get to the top but in a way that makes me want it more.”