Zahra Ouaziz aiming for a Golden Moment in Belfast
Phil Minshull for the IAAF
Moroccos Zahra Ouaziz came of age at last years World Cross Country Championships in her native country despite being 28 and having been a familiar face for several years around the European tracks and cross country races.
The late developer took the womens short course silver medal in Marrakech and helped her team to Moroccos only gold medals on their home soil. Until then, apart from her surprise 1995 World Championship 5,000 bronze medal, she had generally not been in contention when the medals were being decided.
However everything changed for Ouaziz after Marrakech, spurred on by her elevation to the centre stage in Morocco and beyond. Later in 1998 she set African records over 3,000 and 5,000 on the track.
It is difficult to decide whether her most impressive performance was the 8:27.26 3000m she clocked at the Paris Grand Prix meeting in July or the 14:32.08 5000m she ran in Berlin last September, although both efforts came behind winning runs from Romanias Gabriela Szabo.
Ouaziz has started 1999 in equally promising fashion, clearly not resting on her laurels after an exhausting but exhilarating year. A few weeks ago she won the World Indoor Championship 3,000 silver medal with a new African record of 8:38.43, coming home yet again just behind her perpetual nemesis Szabo.
Several cross country outings across the Iberian peninsula during January and February were capped with wins in IAAF World Cross Challenge meetings in Seville and Vilamoura.
She is currently fourth in the Cross Challenge rankings but is expected to sacrifice a chance of further points, and dollars, by competing in the short race 4km in Belfast
"I want to defend my short course silver - or maybe go one better," Ouaziz said.
The defending short course champion, Irelands Sonia OSullivan, will be missing due to pregnancy while Szabo, who makes no secret of her dislike for cross country, has also decided to forego a trip to Belfast.
In the absence of the two women who consistently thwarted her ambitions last year Ouaziz will start as overwhelming favourite in Belfast but she wisely does not believe that her gold medal is a foregone conclusion.
"I expect it to be a tremendous fight with the Ethiopians and Kenyans, after all they are among the best runners in the world," Ouaziz commented. "Nevertheless I have prepared well, have had some good results in the last few months and I am in great shape."
"Winning in Seville and Vilamoura was a big boost to my confidence. I have always known I have had the stamina but those races proved I had the speed as well and I have become much better at sprinting at the end of a tough race."
It has been a long road to the top for Ouaziz. Inspired by the exploits of 1984 Olympic 400 hurdles champion Nawal El Moutawakel, Ouaziz started running seriously as a teenager.
"She was an inspiration to all Arabic women," Ouaziz said of the person who is now an IAAF Council member.
Ouaziz was also helped by having, a rarity in Morocco until recently, a supportive family attuned to athletics.
Her older sister Nadia was an outstanding runner in the 1980s while younger sister Selma shows signs of following in her sisters footsteps after being part of Moroccos winning team in 1998, coming home 24th in last years womens short race.
All the women have been coached by their father Mohammed, who remains Zahras coach to this day.
When Ouaziz started to show progress she initially followed a traditional route of many Moroccan athletes and relocated to France but since 1996 she has returned regularly during the winter to benefit from the new facilities put in place at the high altitude training camp in Ifrane by the Royal Morocco Athletics Federation.
"Two years ago we built a programme especially for women," the federation technical director Aziz Daouda said after last years championship. "The girls who ran in the World Cross Country Championships were from that programme."
Ouaziz now aims to prove that she has graduated with honours from the programme by emulating the feats of male compatriots such as Rhadi Ben Abdessalim and Khalid Skah and taking an individual world cross country crown in Belfast.