Sokwakhana Zazini after winning the 400m hurdles at the IAAF World U18 Championships Nairobi 2017 (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature Nairobi, Kenya

Sokwakhana Zazini – the cool, calm and collected new hurdling star

If you are ever given the unenviable task of racing against Sokwakhana Zazini, you need to know three things: he's got as much respect for you as you do for him; he's going to hammer it down from the gun; and he's almost certainly going to beat you.

The latest prospect in a rich history of South African 400m hurdling, Zazini flaunted his immense talent in the final of his favoured event when he coasted to a commanding victory at the IAAF World U18 Championships Nairobi 2017.

He won gold in 49.27, nearly three seconds clear of his nearest opponent, displaying his potential on the world stage for the first time in his fledgling career.

And though he was delighted to take the top step on the podium, his admittance that he was slightly disappointed not to break his own world U18 best of 48.84 (set in Pretoria in March) offers some insight into the lofty expectations the youngster has already placed on himself.

"It didn't go exactly as planned because I had to change (my lead leg) but I couldn't. I don't know what happened," he said after the race.

"I wanted to break the world record again, but it's fine. I'll take it."

The versatile teenager is a budding phenomenon, but you wouldn't know it unless you watched him run.

Reserved and unassuming, when you meet Zazini for the first time you are greeted with a soft handshake and a warm smile, and he offers none of the bravado that one might expect from a potential global superstar.

When he answers a question in an interview, he takes a brief pause, clearly considering his answer before sharing his thoughts, and it's immediately obvious that Zazini has a careful, analytical approach to the decisions he makes.

It's that same approach which is keeping him grounded.

While he is far and away the best 400m hurdler in the world in his age group, Zazini is careful not to get too far ahead of himself, ensuring he gives his competitors the respect they deserve.

"You never know what might happen, so I'll always stay hungry and I will never look down on my opponents," he says.

Born in the Eastern Cape, the 16-year-old speedster moved to Pretoria last year after receiving a bursary from the TuksSport High School.

Though he has gone on to enjoy a breakthrough season, chopping more than two seconds off his personal best over the barriers, his passion for the sport evolved when he was a child.

"I've always been in love with athletics and hurdles was always my dream event, so I started doing it from a young age and I was able to work on my technique," he says.

"Last year I struggled a bit with my technique and it was hard, but now I'm fine."

The technical aspect of his training, however, has done nothing to hamper his raw speed.

Aside from holding the world U18 400m hurdles best, Zazini also boasts a 400m flat PB of 46.20, which would have made him the fastest athlete in the entry lists in Nairobi last week had he opted to attempt the double.

With many more years ahead to tackle such gruelling tasks, he has wisely chosen to focus on the one-lap event over the barriers for the foreseeable future.

Firmly aware of what he hopes to achieve, Zazini already has his next goal on the back of his mind, and he is eager to make another impact at the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018.

"After these championships I will focus on next year's World Juniors, which is the main event for us, so I need to push for that."

For now, though the parents of his young opponents might not like them losing, they can at least be grateful that Zazini is able to offer them all a valuable life lesson: there's nothing wrong with second place.

Wesley Botton for the IAAF