News & Updates

28 June 2022 • Track and Field

Fast Talia targets Cali goals

Talia Van Rooyen in action at the 2022 Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships (Photo: Alisha Lovrich)

Sixteen-year-old Talia Van Rooyen represents the next generation of female sprinters in New Zealand after enjoying a stellar season. Steve Landells chats to the Auckland speedster about her meteoric rise ahead of the World U20 Championships in Colombia in August.

When Talia Van Rooyen confesses that she only completed her final year of Colgate Games athletics last year, it is a little hard to comprehend how far the Aucklander has come over the past 18 months.

Since claiming the 100, 200m and 80m hurdles treble at the 2021 North Island Colgate Games in Inglewood, the sprint ace has been a woman in a hurry and this year alone has dipped below 12 seconds for the first time in her career, collected New Zealand and Oceania 100m U18 titles (not to mention the 100m hurdles national U18 crown), and ran a 100m PB of 11.67 at the Oceania Championships, where she also secured the outstanding U18 Performance of the meeting in Mackay.

However, Talia hopes she has not yet reached the high point of her season as she faces the biggest test of her hugely exciting career at the World U20 Championships in Cali, Colombia in August.

Born in Pretoria, South Africa 16 years ago, the sprint ace spent much of her formative years living in the town of Heidelberg near Johannesburg with a family background steeped in athletics. Her father, Johan, was a former 10.5 100m sprinter and mum, Melanie, was a high school national finalist in the 100m and 100m hurdles, while some of Talia’s earliest memories were down at the track watching mum coach sprints and hurdles.

She started herself started competing around the age of five, although she recalls her initial athletics experiences were far from memorable.

“When I first started at primary school, I hated the sport and I used to cry during athletics,” she explains. “My teacher used to always have to hold my hand, but after a while I started to enjoy it as my results improved.” 

She won her first school sprints competition around the age of seven and was a finalist in the Gauteng Province 100m for her age group before her family relocated to start a new life in New Zealand when Talia was aged nine.

Despite arriving as a native Afrikaans speaker to Auckland she quickly adapted to her new life. She had studied English at school back in South Africa, picked up the language quickly as young people often do and from the age of 10 joined the North Harbour Bays club.

The Colgate Games quickly became a staple part of her summer and she quickly excelled as a sprinter/hurdler, although Talia was an accomplished all-round sportswoman good enough to captain North Harbour at hockey and she also represented New Zealand at tag rugby.

So why did athletics win her affections?

“I’m an introverted person,” she explains. “It is not that I have anything against team sports, but I sometimes like having my own time in training to focus on myself.”

Gold medals in sprints and hurdles races became the norm at Colgate Games all under the coaching regime of South African Owen Van Niekerk – who had started guiding her career shortly before she left to relocate to New Zealand.

Owen, who still coaches Talia today, is a vastly experienced sprint and hurdles coach, who has guided more than 600 South African champions. Despite the vast gap in kilometres between the pair, Talia, who celebrated her 16th birthday earlier this month, believes the coaching set up is ideal for her and allows her to deliver her best.

“My mum and dad are on hand at the track to help me carry out the programme Owen has set,” explains Talia. “After every training week we update him. We tell him what times I’ve run. He has high expectations, and if the times are too slow he tells me. It is nice to have the straight facts. He does not beat around the bush.”  

Talia made big progress in 2020 lowering her 100m PB by half-a-second down to 12.35 and later that year won a 100m bronze medal in the junior girls’ 100m final at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Tauranga – despite sustaining a bad fall while hurdling just two weeks earlier.

The following year she started with a bang by winning triple gold at the North Island Colgate Games and was awarded with a Nick Willis Scholarship – a nice acknowledgement of her rising status. One month later she lowered her 100m PB down to 12.11 when winning the Auckland title only to be denied the opportunity to compete at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Track & Field and Road Championships following its Covid-induced cancellation.

“I was quite bummed about schools not happening because it was my final year as a junior athlete (at national secondary schools level),” she explains. “But on the other hand, I was not so bothered because it gave my dad and I the chance to train and get faster.”

Training six times a week up at AUT Millennium, the North Harbour Bays athlete has continued to go from strength to strength. Based in the same environment as the likes of New Zealand 100m record-holder Zoe Hobbs and others such as national 200m champion Georgia Hulls and New Zealand 400m hurdles record-holder Portia Bing she could now have a better bunch of athletes to draw upon.

“I always look to Zoe and the other girls as a great inspiration,” she adds. “Zoe is going so well at the moment, and she has opened so many doors for other sprinters here in New Zealand.”

If Zoe is the current generation, then Talia has proved in 2022 she is most definitely the future of women’s sprinting in New Zealand. In January she dipped under the 12-second barrier for the first time, posting 11.96 (-1/0m/s) to win at the Cooks Classic in Whanganui.

“I was quite shocked (with the time),” she says. “The win was huge for us. I was really happy and that performance showed the hard work in training was paying off.”

Five days later she chipped a further 0.07 from this time, placing third at Capital Classic in Wellington into a stiff -3.2m/s wind. Running alongside Zoe, Talia’s performance was 0.01 under the entry standard for the World U20 Championships and capped a memorable week for the then 15-year-old sprinter.

At the Sir Graeme Douglas International later in February she blitzed to a 100m time of 11.75 (+2.1m/s) before completing the 100m and 100m hurdles double at the Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Hastings.

In her 100m heat she recorded a legal PB of 11.76 (+1.7m/s) before registering a jaw-dropping 11.50 – albeit with a +3.1m/s following wind – to strike gold in the final. The performance was 0.05 quicker than the national U17 and U18 women’s 100m record of 11.55 set by Briar Toop in 1990 but it could not be classified as a record because of the excessive wind. She later returned to her other passion – the hurdles – to strike gold in the women’s U18 100m hurdles in a lifetime best of 13.84.

“It was a really memorable competition to win my two favourite events. I’d made a last minute decision (to run the hurdles) and I ended up with a decent performance. To win in only my second (100m) hurdles race. I was happy with the race and how it felt.”

However, a combination of a positive Covid test following nationals and a bout of glandular fever sidelined her for four weeks, so to return to the competitive arena earlier this month by blitzing to a PB of 11.67 in the women’s 100m heats of the Oceania Area Championships followed by gold in the final in 11.88 – 0.01 clear of fellow Kiwi Marielle Venida was a performance to cherish.

‘I was really happy with my 11.67 time because we were only expecting a sub-12 second time in the heats,” he explains. “In the final it was great to see the top two girls in Oceania from New Zealand and I was speechless to later be awarded the outstanding U18 performance of the meeting.”

Her next challenge is competing in the 100m at the World U20 Championships in Cali, and facing athletes up to three years older she knows the size of her task. However, not lacking in belief or confidence, Talia has some big ambitions in Colombia.

“I hope to get a PB and break the New Zealand (U17 and U18) record,” she adds. “Hopefully I can get into the final and run as fast as I can.”

With a strong Christian faith, Talia cites Olympic 400m hurdles champion Sydney McLaughlin and world 100m record-holder Kendra Harrison as two athletes she really admires. And with future ambitions to compete at the highest level she identifies her ability to run “relaxed under pressure” as one of her strengths.

Her ascendency may appear steep to some observers, but her progress has been a decade in the making – a progression fuelled on an overwhelming passion for her sport.

“I love everything about athletics,” she says. “I love the training, the people, every day I’m in my element. I am lucky to be able to do what I do. It is so much fun.”